The fleeting utility of early horse-race polls

A Washington Post poll released this morning showed President Obama leading most of Republican challengers in hypothetical match-ups, but Mitt Romney fared much better. Among registered voters, the president and the former governor were tied in the poll, and among likely voters, Romney led Obama by three, 49% to 46%.

This caused quite a stir in some circles — it was Mark Halperin’s lead story for much of the day — so let’s again pause to note some additional context.

In July 1995, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found Bill Clinton and Bob Dole tied at 48% each among registered voters. In June 1995, a Newsweek poll showed Dole leading Clinton by nine, 49% to 40%,

In August 1995, a New York Times/CBS News poll found voter frustrations at some of their highest levels “in modern American history,” and reported these results about the 1996 cycle:

[T]he Republicans at this stage have a more favorable image as a party, with 54 percent of respondents approving and 37 percent disapproving, compared with a roughly even split for the Democrats, 47 percent positive and 45 percent negative.

A trial heat between a generic “Republican candidate” and Mr. Clinton gave the Republican 28 percent and the President 22 percent, with 45 percent undecided. Especially at this very early stage, such questions can be only broadly indicative, but the results certainly suggest Democratic problems.

With Mr. Dole as the Republican candidate, the poll showed 48 percent for the Senator and 42 percent for the President.

At roughly this point in 1983, Reagan was in deep trouble, too. (At this point in 1991, meanwhile, George H. W. Bush was a shoo-in for re-election.)

To be sure, the point isn’t that Obama will be fine because Clinton and Reagan fared well despite trailing at this stage in their respective races. Rather, the point is that horse-race polls a year and a half before an election just don’t tell us much, and have little predictive value.

They’re worth keeping an eye on just to get a sense of the broader trends, but there’s no reason for anyone on either side to get worked up about this. 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.