2012 could be the year Democrats are finally competitive for President in Texas...but only if the Republicans nominate Sarah Palin.
There are vast differences in how the various different potential GOP contenders fare against Barack Obama in Texas. Mike Huckabee is very popular in the state and would defeat Obama by 16 points, a more lopsided victory than John McCain had there in 2008. Mitt Romney is also pretty well liked and has a 7 point advantage over the President in an early hypothetical contest, a closer margin than the state had last time around but still a pretty healthy lead. A plurality of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Newt Gingrich but he would lead Obama by a 5 point margin nonetheless. It's a whole different story with Palin though. A majority of Texas voters have an unfavorable opinion of her and she leads the President by just a single point in a hypothetical contest.
Part of the reason Obama looks like he could be competitive against the right Republican opponent is that his position in the state has improved. 42% of voters approve of the job he's doing to 55% who disapprove. His average approval rating in 4 surveys conducted in PPP over the course of 2010 was 38% so he's seeing the same sort of uptick in his numbers there that he's seeing nationally right now.
The other reason for Obama's closeness is the weakness of the Republican candidate field. He'd have no shot against a GOP nominee that voters in the state like. Huckabee's favorability rating is a 51/30 spread and he blows Obama out of the water. But none of the other GOP hopefuls come close to matching that appeal. Romney's favorability is narrowly in positive territory at 40/37, but Gingrich's is negative at 38/44, and Palin's is even worse at 42/53. Texas voters certainly don't like Obama but for the most part they don't see the current Republican front runners as particularly great alternatives.
What's maybe most striking about Obama's competitiveness in these numbers is that they're from the same sample that showed Democrats had virtually no chance of picking up Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate seat earlier this week, trailing all 12 match ups we tested by double digit margins.
We also tested Rick Perry for President against Obama on the poll and he actually did the worst of the Republicans, earning only a tie. It's hard to say whether that's simply because people want him to serve out his term as Governor or because they really don't think he's cut out for the White House. The next time we do a Texas poll we'll go into greater depth about the causes behind the reluctance of voters in the state to support him for President.
Texas ought to stay safely in the GOP column for 2012 but with a weak nominee Obama would have a chance and these numbers are further confirmation that you're probably talking about 400+ electoral votes for the President next year if his opponent is Sarah Palin.
Full results here