Don't Buy the Obama Re-Election Polls

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 14 2010 10:08 AM

Don't Buy the Obama Re-Election Polls

Public Policy Polling, which does some work for Democrats but mostly nailed the 2010 results, has been releasing waves of polling on swing states which find Barack Obama handily or narrowly defeating every Republican hopeful. They preview new numbers from Ohio:

Voters in Ohio really aren't too fond of Barack Obama. His approval rating there is only 42%, with 49% of voters disapproving of him. Republicans dislike him (87% disapproval) a whole lot more than Democrats like him (71% approval). Independents are even more negative toward him than the population as a whole, with 54% of them disapproving of him and 40% approving.

Despite all that Obama leads all four of the leading Republicans for reelection in 2012 in Ohio in numbers we'll release tomorrow.

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PPP's survey showing Obama strong in Michigan was probably right, and the margins he held over Republican contenders (except for Romney, who kept it close) were too large to assume Obama is in danger there. But we should be skeptical about the rest of these polls monitoring Republican candidates from state to state. Tim Pawlenty, John Thune, and to some degree Mitt Romney are simply not well known by voters yet.

How much does it matter whether voters have heard of the candidates wanting to run against a candidate they don't like? It matters a lot. In December 2007, Survey USA polling of Massachusetts gave Barack Obama a mere 2-point lead in a hypothetical match-up with John McCain. Go back and look at Survey USA polls from 2007 -- a time when the Republican brand was in the trash, and smart betting was on a Democratic president -- and Survey USA consistently found that Barack Obama trailed or struggled with well-known Republican opponents like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Is it fair to compare Survey USA and PPP? Sure: Both are automated pollsters with robots that locate people at home and ask them questions.

Again, Michigan is probably an exception, but in most cases you shouldn't look at a trial heat in some swing state where Barack Obama has sub-45 percent support with independents and be surprised that Obama leads anyway. The Republicans need to introduce themselves.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.