The fallacy of generic presidential ballots

at 03:13 PM ET, 10/14/2011

The headline writes itself: “Obama losing to a ‘generic’ Republican candidate in 2012 matchup!”.


WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a news conference at the South Court Auditorium at Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House March 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
But while new numbers out of Gallup do show the “Republican party’s candidate for president” taking 46 percent to President Obama’s 38 percent in a general election face-off, drawing any sort of conclusions about the incumbent’s relative vulnerability off of that data point is a major mistake.

Here’s why: Matching a generic Republican against a flesh and blood Obama is, to fall back on a nicely-worn cliche, like comparing apples and oranges.

Obama has spent the last three years in the most high-profile job in the country, attempting — with very limited success — to turn around a sluggish economy.

His strengths and, more importantly for this exercise, his flaws, are all well known to anyone who pays even passing attention to the world of politics.

Obama is, in short, a known commodity.

A generic Republican candidate, on the other hand, is the definition of unknown since, well, it’s not an actual person. That lack of personality means that a potential voter can, in essence, invest said candidate with all of the best traits they want in a politician and none of the things they dislike. Put simply: “Generic” becomes a stand-in for “ideal” in most peoples’ minds.

Think about it outside of the political context.

Would you rather have meatloaf for dinner or some other dinner option that’s far less defined? It could be pizza! It could be a steak!

How about choosing between the car you currently own and some theoretical car that could look like something out of “Back to the Future”? (Ok, maybe it’s only the Fix’s dream to own a DeLorean.)

You get the idea. The generic/ideal of anything typically beats out something more specific. It’s human nature. We like mystery; we like to think that something better is lurking just outside of our peripheral vision.

It’s not surprising then that when Obama is matched against the actual Republican candidates, his deficit disappears. In Gallup’s most recent head to head ballot test, Obama ran within the margin of error against both former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

And, it’s equally unsurprising that the generic presidential ballot question has been an uneven predictor of outcomes. Back in October 1991, Gallup showed then President George H.W. Bush leading a generic Democrat candidate by 17 points in a hypothetical 1992 matchup. And we know how that one turned out.

( The presidential generic was more accurate in the 2004 election; in October 2003, then President George W. Bush held a narrow edge over a generic Democrat in Gallup data and went on to beat Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry narrowly the following fall.)

All of this is not to say that Obama isn’t in serious trouble when it comes to his re-election bid — because he is. The combination of a lagging economy, a sour public mood and a sense that Obama delivered on less than he promised in the 2008 campaign all make the 2012 election a toss-up.

But, be wary of reading too much into Obama’s eight-point “deficit” in the generic presidential ballot. After all, if you had to choose between The Fix and your ideal political blog, which would you opt for?

 
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