Depending on what side of the aisle you're on, you may have woken up to some dispiriting – or validating – news this morning: A National Journal poll in which 50 percent of respondents said they'd vote for "someone else" other than President Obama if the presidential election of 2012 were held today. Just 39 percent of those polled said they would "probably" or "definitely" vote to reelect the president.
The results broke fairly predictably along party lines with 86 percent of Republicans saying they would vote for someone else and 77 percent of Democrats reporting they'd vote to keep Obama in office. Among independents, the story's a bit more troubling for the president -- just 33 percent in that group said they would vote to reelect him, while 54 percent said they'd opt for the alternative to-be-named.
Now, this clearly isn't great news for the Obama camp, but the outcome isn't nearly as damning as it appears at first glance.
The results may have been as dim as they are in large part because the question pitted Obama against an unnamed opponent from an unspecified party. Although pollsters often use this type of generic question, it tends to yield the worst imaginable outcome for incumbents, since respondents are free to picture the anonymous opponent any way they like.
"It's going to tend to be a worst case scenario, because it allows you to imagine whoever you want," Pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal says. "If you're an unhappy progressive, you may be imagining a primary challenger, even though you might be voting for a Democrat in a general election. If you're a Republican, you may be thinking of your ideal candidate. It may be different if the Republican candidate is Sarah Palin or someone else you're less happy with."
Paul Maslin, who's worked as a pollster for the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Bill Richardson (and has previously written for Salon), concurs. The results are based on "a theoretical judgment made by an electorate ... in the absence of any real opposition," Maslin says.
"The Republican party, if they're honest with themselves -- even if they're crowing about how well they're going to do in the midterm elections -- has to realize that their brand has been shattered in the past several years and I don't think they're doing much to recover other than saying 'We don't believe in government.' Ultimately, they're going to have to offer something affirmative."
Besides, the presidential election's still nearly three years away, so it's hard to draw any real conclusions about Obama's chances then based on the political climate right now.
"All the poll tells us is something we know already," Maslin says. "The country's still in a sour mood, so they're going to withhold judgment – as they probably should – on a president who's only one fourth into his first term."