AT THIS POINT IN 1983…. There’s quite a bit of new polling out lately showing hypothetical match-ups, pitting President Obama against the leading Republican candidates. In general, the president fares pretty well against the GOP field, though the margins against some Republicans are fairly modest.
But before anyone takes any of these results too seriously, I’d point to this Dave Weigel item, quoting a New York Times article that ran on March 23, 1983.
If the 1984 Presidential election were being held today, either former Vice President Walter F. Mondale or Senator John Glenn would defeat any of the leading Republicans, according to the Gallup Poll.
Both hold modest margins over President Reagan and comfortable leads over Vice President Bush and the Senate majority leader, Howard H. Baker Jr., the two Republicans with the most current support in their party if Mr. Reagan was not to run.
When 1,156 registered voters were asked last month whom they would prefer, Mr. Mondale led Mr. Reagan by 47 percent to 41 percent, with the rest undecided. Mr. Glenn led the President by 45 percent to 40 percent.
This is, by the way, roughly the same point in the election cycle we’re at now.
In fact, it’s worth adding some additional context to this. The reason the Gallup poll tested the support of other Republican candidates was that there were some questions as to whether Reagan would even seek re-election. He wasn’t just unpopular at this point in 1983, and wasn’t just trailing the leading Democrats, Reagan was also considered vulnerable to a Republican primary challenger. It’s why Gallup polled Baker and Bush — they weren’t sure Reagan would be on the ballot.
After the 1982 midterms, a cycle in which many GOP candidates didn’t want to be seen with Reagan, many conservatives either wanted the president to either announce he wouldn’t run again, or prepare to face a Republican opponent in 1984.
If memory serves, Reagan won 49 states the next year.
Modern-day Republicans tend to be rather uncomfortable with all of this, not because it’s wrong, but because it’s inconsistent with the myth they’ve worked so hard to sell. Reagan wasn’t universally loved at all times? Party leaders worried that Reagan was in over his head and wasn’t up to the job? Well, yes.
Then the economy got better.
And that’s why it’s hard to get worked up about 2012 horse-race polls. Over the next year and a half, a stronger economy will bolster Obama’s standing and make him a safe bet for a second term. A weaker economy will put the president’s career in jeopardy. This isn’t rocket science.