As recently as last month, President Obama stood strong in polls against his potential Republican challengers: With the exception of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney – who lagged by several points – Obama was far ahead of each of his competitors. Now, according to the latest Gallup survey, 48 percent of registered voters say they would vote for Romney if the presidential election were held now, compared to 46 percent for Obama. Likewise, at 47 percent support, Obama is tied in a head-to-head matchup with Texas governor Rick Perry. Even Ron Paul fares well against Obama, earning 46 percent of the vote to Obama’s 48 percent. Among the Republican presidential candidates chosen by Gallup, Obama fares best against Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who trails the president by four points with 44 percent of the vote.
This isn’t great news for the White House, but it’s not the end of the world either. At this time in 1982, for example, Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings lingered in the low 40s, and when asked if they wanted to see Reagan run for re-election, only 36 percent of Americans said yes, with 51 percent asking him to step aside. By 1983, Reagan’s approval ratings had fallen to 35 percent – the lowest of his presidency – and prominent Democrats were itching to challenge the seemingly weak Republican president.
Of course, the chief difference between then and now is the economy. By this point in 1983, the economy had already begun to swing toward recovery:
Obama, on the other hand, won’t be able to count on rapidly improving economic conditions. With stimulus measures like the payroll tax cut scheduled to expire at the beginning of next year, the most he can hope is for the economy to stay out of a second recession, and continue along with sluggish growth and somewhat lower unemployment.
At this point in the election cycle, head-to-head matchups don’t tell us much about the particulars of any candidate. If anything, they provide a look at the electoral landscape, and insofar that this Gallup survey shows anything, it’s that the GOP has a strong advantage, and that Obama’s fortunes depend heavily on what happens to the economy in the next year.