A new Public Policy Polling survey finds that President Obama leading Mitt Romney and Rick Perry in the prospective general election polls known as trial heats.

New TNR columnist/blogger Timothy Noah suggested that Obama’s standing was “remarkable” and that the poll showed that the GOP candidates “are unable to capitalize on the miserable state of the economy”:

President Barack Obama may have an unfavorable rating of 50 percent, but he still leads every major Republican candidate in the field, according to a new survey by Public Policy Polling. That’s remarkable given the dismal state of the economy…

That the Republican presidential candidates are unable to capitalize on the miserable state of the economy gives you some idea of how weak Obama’s opposition is. None of the major GOP candidates can beat John McCain’s 46 percent from 2008. Mitt Romney, who at this point seems the likeliest nominee, loses 45 percent to Obama’s 49 percent… Front-runner Rick Perry loses 41 percent to Obama’s 52 percent.

It’s important to be cautious, however, in interpreting the President’s standing in these early trial heat polls. The fact that Obama is leading now doesn’t tell us much about how he would fare against Romney or Perry in November. Research by the political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson finds that general election trial heats have very limited predictive power until later in the campaign (gated). We are currently 419 days away from the 2012 election. In a draft book manuscript, they show that trial heats pitting the eventual candidates against each other do not forecast the general election outcome well 300 days in advance but their predictive power increases roughly linearly thereafter (figure reproduced with permission):

In other words, we shouldn’t make too much of where Obama stands against his likely Republican opponents right now. The direction of the economy is a better indicator of how the election is likely to turn out (as well as Obama’s approval ratings, of course, which are heavily influenced by the economy). As Wlezien and Erikson show, the campaign brings economic factors into focus for voters, which in turn causes trial heats to come into closer alignment with the eventual outcome as the election draws near. For now, though, these polls are mostly a media sideshow.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.