Tom Jensen, who writes much of the analysis on behalf of our polling partners at PPP, broke down the new numbers in Pennsylvania earlier in the week. In so doing, Jensen made an analytical point that he has used so often this cycle he probably need only cut-and-paste it at this point:
If there's one thing Obama does have going for him in Pennsylvania it's that voters don't think much of any of his prospective Republican opponents either. Bachmann has the 'best' favorability rating but it's still a -7 spread at 34/41. That's followed by Romney (35/46) and Cain (22/33) at -11, Pawlenty (21/39) at -18, Palin (36/57) at -21, and Santorum (31/54) at -23. Obama's able to tie Romney and lead the rest of the GOP hopefuls despite his own unpopularity because they are even more unpopular. It's just another reminder that with the economy still doing poorly Obama's best hope may be for the Republicans to put forth someone so unpalatable that he wins on a sort of 'lesser of two evils' vote.
PPP is not the only one to notice that the field of GOP contenders vying to challenge the president are largely unknown and mostly unloved. Examining the 2011 compendium of polls put together by the website Polling Report, here are the average fav/unfav numbers for the leading GOP candidates:
Ron Paul: 35/30 (4 polls)
Mitt Romney: 36/32 (8 polls)
Herman Cain: 21/17 (2 polls)
Michele Bachmann: 27/24 (6 polls)
Tim Pawlenty: 22/21 (6 polls)
Jon Huntsman: 15/15 (5 polls)
Rick Santorum: 21/22 (5 polls)
Rick Perry: 22/25 (1 poll)
Newt Gingrich: 28/45 (10 polls)
Sarah Palin: 32/56 (12 polls)
(Note: Polling Report does not include automated pollsters in their database)
Taking the perennially unpopular pairing of Gingrich and Palin out of the equation, the balance of the GOP field is a quivering mass of "meh." Nobody scores a net favorability of higher than +5, and it isn't solely because of a lack of name recognition (indeed, half of the field is recognized by a majority of respondents).
How does that compare with previous years? Looking at the last presidential election, check out the fav/unfavs for the first half of 2007 for the three leading players on the Democratic side (Obama, Clinton, and Edwards) and three leading players on the GOP side (McCain, Giuliani, and Romney):
Rudy Giuliani (R): 54/24 (21 polls)
Barack Obama (D): 45/20 (23 polls)
John McCain (R): 45/27 (24 polls)
John Edwards (D): 42/27 (21 polls)
Hillary Clinton (D): 46/43 (24 polls)
Mitt Romney (R): 19/19 (23 polls)
The differences are pretty stark. The 2008 fields, on both sides, had at least a couple of candidates who were both well known, and reasonably well liked. Based on this, it would seem that the characterizations of the current Republican group as uniformly weak has some merit.
The Polling Report database gets a little thinner dating back to 2003, but it is worth noting that the few polls lodged there had John Kerry at roughly a +11 net favorability, as well.
The problem for the GOP field, at present, isn't that it is a mass of unknown quantities. It is that they are known, and not particularly beloved. This puts a bit of a limit on the upside for many of these candidates. The bulk of the GOP field already has unfavorabilities with the electorate that matched their 2008 compatriots, but with roughly half of their favorables. That is not attractive math for the GOP.
Does this mean that President Obama is in the driver's seat for re-election? Not necessarily. The 2010 elections, in at least one sense, could serve as a cautionary tale for 2012.
It could well be an errant assumption that the president can take advantage of the lack of horsepower on the GOP side and ride it to a re-election win. Last year proved, if nothing else, that unpopular opposition does not a victory make. Consider what, in my mind, was the most amazing statistic from the 2010 exit polls. On Election Day, even as the Republicans were swiping everything that wasn't bolted down, they actually had a lower net favorability (41/53) than did the Democratic Party (44/52). A big part of the Democratic margin of defeat came from voters who were dissatisfied with the GOP, but voted for them anyway. Nearly a quarter of voters who had an unfavorable view of the GOP ended up voting Republican anyway.
Therefore, the big question may not be how popular the GOP contenders are, but how popular the president will be come Election Day.
To be sure, presidential approval ratings are always a key indicator of his re-election prospects. In the case of Barack Obama, his approval ratings fall in what could best be defined as a grey area. As Gallup's Frank Newport noted a few weeks ago:
Presidents with job approval ratings below 48% tend to lose their bids for re-election. Presidents with ratings at the 48% level (for George W. Bush) or above 50% for the rest, tend to win. As noted, there are not many cases to work with here. As seen with Truman, exceptions can occur. But if Obama is at 50% or higher next October, it certainly would not be too risky to hypothesize that he has a better than 50-50 chance of winning re-election. And if his job approval rating is down at 43%...his chances of winning re-election are probably lower than 50-50.
The failure of the Republicans to have a well-known, well-liked candidate in the wings is what has kept the president in the ballgame thus far, despite a generally pessimistic electorate. And it is certainly possible for him to parlay voter concerns about the GOP field into re-election. In an odd way, the GOP seizure of the House last year probably aids the president to that end, because grumpy voters who want to "send a message" to Washington are no longer automatically relegated to voting Republican.
That said, President Obama's cause would be greatly aided by finding a slightly larger reservoir of goodwill with the electorate. That could come from a bump in the economy, or it could come from being on the right side of a showdown with Congressional Republicans. Either way, given the lack of strength on the other side of the table, it might not take much to make the president into a betting favorite. But how he plays his hands in the coming months still has an enormous impact.