Caveat emptor on election projections

The Washington Post‘s Charles Lane has a piece today arguing that the recent poll numbers are “gloomy” for President Obama.

Campaign 2012 is upon us. Time to size up President Obama’s reelection chances. What do the data suggest?

In 2011, an average of 17 percent of the public was “satisfied with the way things are going,” according to the Gallup Poll. That is roughly the same as 2008 — so Obama enters this year leading a country as unhappy as the one he inherited.

The president’s approval rating is lower than his disapproval rating. In mid-December, Gallup had him “underwater” by eight points: 42 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval.

This is an odd argument. For one thing, the same Gallup tracking poll Lane uses as the basis of his observation also showed Obama “above water” as recently as December 23, with a 47% approval and 45% disapproval. Since these results came after the poll Lane referenced in his column, they’re arguably more reliable.

For that matter, Gallup tracking polls aren’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to measuring public opinion. The third week in December, CNN and the Washington Post each released national polls putting the president’s approval rating at 49%. That’s not necessarily evidence of soaring popularity, but it’s not “gloomy,” either. I’m not sure why Lane overlooked all of this.

But the larger concern is with the exercise itself. It’s only natural for the political world to invest some time in speculating about the presidential election that’s 11 months away, but there’s a limit on how much we can learn this far out from Election Day. In the first week in January 1996, CNN released a poll showing President Clinton’s approval rating at 42%, and Clinton trailed Bob Dole in a hypothetical match-up, 49% to 46%.

And if memory serves, Clinton managed to do pretty well 11 months later.

The point isn’t that Obama’s road to re-election is an easy one; it almost certainly won’t be. The point, rather, is that a lot is going to happen between now and November. We’ll have plenty of data to chew on, but I’d recommend caution before making any sweeping assumptions — or writing ominous columns — about unpredictable events.