Beware of horse-race polls 15 months out

I don’t doubt this new Gallup poll will get plenty of attention, and will be circulated aggressively by Republicans, but I find it interesting for very different reasons.

President Barack Obama is closely matched against each of four possible Republican opponents when registered voters are asked whom they would support if the 2012 presidential election were held today. Mitt Romney leads Obama by two percentage points, 48% to 46%, Rick Perry and Obama are tied at 47%, and Obama edges out Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann by two and four points, respectively.

The president tends to fare better among all adults, but among registered voters, Obama appears to be in a tight race against any of the leading Republicans. Most observers, regardless of preferences or ideology, seem to agree that the 2012 race appears likely to be close, and the new Gallup data certainly points in that direction.

That said, there are two angles I’d encourage folks to keep in mind.

First, as I like to point out from time to time, horse-race polls 15 months before an election have very little predictive value. Indeed, they tend to look ridiculous a year and a half later. In August 1999, Bush led Gore by 14 points in a Gallup poll, and Gore went on to win the popular vote (and if all the ballots had been counted in Florida, the electoral college). In August 1996, Gallup showed Dole leading Clinton by two points (a NYT/CBS poll had Dole over Clinton by six). In August 1983, Gallup showed Reagan leading Mondale by one (other polls showed Mondale ahead).

At this point in 1991, Clinton hadn’t even announced, and H.W. Bush looked unbeatable.

Again, the point isn’t 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. 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.

The other angle probably seems foolish, but I’m going to put it out there anyway: isn’t Obama doing better than expected?

Clearly, an incumbent president trailing his most likely challenger at this point isn’t good news, but consider the bigger picture: his approval rating is down to 40%; the overwhelming majority of the public believes the country is on the wrong track and conditions are getting worse; unemployment is extremely high; while most presidents enjoy at least some support from the other party, rank-and-file Republicans overwhelmingly hate Obama; and the liberal base isn’t even close to satisfied.

It’s against this backdrop that the president, against a credible Republican challenger, only trails by two points? I’d expect him to be faring much worse given the larger circumstances.