I once won $100 on a political sucker bet. During the early part of the 1996 election cycle, before the Republican nominee had been selected, a fellow I know said that Clinton’s approval ratings were so low that his defeat was certain. This guy rashly offered 5:1 odds to anyone who believed Clinton would win; thereby was my double sawbuck transformed into a C-note come Election Day. As I explained to my victim, he had forgotten that no ballot offers a choice between one candidate and no President at all for the next 4 years. Generic disapproval thus doesn’t matter as long as people disapprove of you less (or approve of your more) than they do whoever runs against you.

This same phenomenon can be seen in this collection of polls today on Real Clear Politics. President Obama loses in the average of polls about a generic Republican candidate, but wins every average of polls when the poll question names a specific Republican opponent. The generic poll is clearly picking up some popular dissatisfaction with the President, but the rest of the polls show that whatever voters’ reservations about Obama, they are less severe than those they have about anyone who might run against him. That’s good news for President Obama.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.