The futility of early horse-race polls

The 2012 presidential election is 15 months away; the Republican field isn’t quite set yet; and voters aren’t close to being engaged in the race. We have the appearance of an ongoing presidential election — debates, ads, breathless media speculation — but the race really has barely started.

I mention this in part because there’s plenty of talk about President Obama’s chances next year, and his faltering poll numbers only fuel the scuttlebutt. National Journal had a brief item yesterday that caught my eye on why Republican “giddiness” should be tempered.

First of all, the approval ratings for Congress and the tea party are falling further faster. (Obama may want to take a cue from Harry Truman, who famously ran against the “Do-Nothing Congress.”)

Second, another president who suffered a recession early in his first term also had, at the same point in his first term, an approval rating hovering in the low 40 percent range — and President Reagan went on to win a landslide reelection victory the following year.

Of course, Reagan benefited from the economy taking off and a weak challenger, Walter Mondale. For his part, Obama can’t count on the unemployment rate getting much better or be certain he’ll have a weak GOP nominee — though, so far, the field lacks a commanding front-runner.

From time to time, it’s worth remembering how little can be gleaned at this point in the process. Obama’s approval ratings are meager but stable, though we’re at the beginning of an apparent economic crisis that could take an unpredictable toll on his support. Mitt Romney appears to be the GOP frontrunner, but his backing is clearly wider than it is deep. Rick Perry, who’ll almost certainly be a top-tier challenger, hasn’t even announced yet.

The larger point is admittedly a cliche, but it happens to be true: a lot can change very quickly. Exactly 16 years ago this week, 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. At this point in 1991, meanwhile, George H. W. Bush was a shoo-in for re-election.

I’m not suggesting that Obama will persevere 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. The larger economic conditions are vastly more important, and we don’t know what the near future holds.

The polls are worth keeping an eye on to get a sense of the broader trends — I’d be lying if I said I didn’t check on them daily — but there’s no reason for anyone on either side to get worked up just yet. Over the next year and a half, an improving economy will bolster Obama’s standing and make him a safer bet for a second term. A deteriorating economy will put the president’s career in jeopardy. This isn’t rocket science.