As Barack Obama launches his reelection campaign today our polling is telling two entirely different stories about his prospects for a second term, depending on whether you're asking about people's general inclination to vote for him again or whether you're asking if people would rather vote for him or one of the specific Republicans considering the race.
When we asked people on our weekly national poll for Daily Kos and SEIU last week whether they'd rather vote for Obama or a generic Republican opponent it came out as a tie at 45%. That's pretty consistent with what we've found on that question over the course of 6 times we've asked it so far in 2010- on average 47% of voters have said they want to reelect Obama while 45% have said they'll vote for his GOP foe. Obama is essentially 50/50 for reelection when tested against your average Republican candidate for President.
The problem is that none of the high profile Republicans considering the race right now are of a high enough quality to reach that 'average' plateau. Our last national poll found that Mike Huckabee's favorability was 35/42, Mitt Romney's was 32/44, Tim Pawlenty's was 15/33, Sarah Palin's was 35/57, and Newt Gingrich's was 26/57. Voters have a plurality negative opinion of all the Republican front runners and they've only been getting more unpopular over the last two years.
So when you pit Obama specifically against them his reelection prospects start looking a lot rosier- over the course of three national polls we've done in 2011 Obama leads Huckabee by an average of 4 points, Romney by an average of 5, Gingrich by an average of 11, and Palin by an average of 15 points. His leads over both Huckabee and Romney are smaller than his 7 point win over John McCain in 2008 so he's weaker now than when he was first elected by any measure but still against the actual Republican bodies he might face next year he's looking like a pretty solid favorite.
The biggest question for Obama's reelection over the next 19 months is whether the Republicans can come up with a nominee who's as good as average- either through image rehabilitation of one of the current front runners or someone coming from the back of the pack who proves to be a lot more formidable than any of these folks.
Democrats tend to want to emphasize the President's numbers against specific Republicans when assessing his reelection chances while Republicans are more inclined to want to look at the generic numbers, saying that's a more realistic gauge once the party's on board behind one person. The Republicans are right that the generic numbers are more compelling if the party ends up with a strong candidate...but that's a big if.
It sort of ties into the national championship game tonight- if either Butler or Connecticut had to play UNC 2009, Kansas 2008, Florida 2006 and 2007, UNC 2005, or Connecticut 2004 it's a pretty safe bet they would get their butt kicked. But one of them's going to be hoisting a national championship banner just the same because you only have to beat the teams that end up in your path. It's the same for Obama- he may be relatively weak but if he ends up with an easy opponent he'll get the same second term that other more popular Presidents have through the years.