December 6, 2010

Should I take polls about the 2012 election seriously two years before the election?

Q. I see polls saying that Obama will win in 2012 over any Republican who runs. But when people are asked about Obama’s plans and programs, that agenda is, for the most part, rejected — as shown in the recent elections. So, are poll questions on the up and up?

Polls about presidential elections taken this far in advance of the actual election are very unreliable predictors of what will happen (see “How Reliable Are the Early Presidential Election Polls?“). For example, Bob Dole led Bill Clinton in a Gallup poll taken in February 1995, and Walter Mondale led Ronald Reagan in a February 1983 Gallup poll. As we know, there was no President Dole, and President Reagan won a huge landslide reelection victory in 1984. But it’s also important to keep in mind that the outcome of presidential elections involving incumbents depends more on the public’s judgment of performance than on approval or disapproval of specific policies. A lot of past history suggests that if the economy is judged to be improving significantly in the fall of 2012, President Obama is likely to win reelection.

Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center