Most prediction systems based on economic and other fundamentals suggest a very close presidential election in 2012. But one forecast by political scientist Larry Bartels, makes Obama a very solid favorite.

And new research by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck hint that perhaps Bartels is right, and that Obama is in better shape than many assume.

Bartels finds that poor economic performance in the first year or two of a president’s term isn’t just forgotten (as most models assume), but actually has an inverse relationship with re-election. The better the economy in Year One, the worse the president does three years later. The worse the economy in Year One, the better he does at the polls.

Is Bartels correct? A new finding reported by Sides and Vavreck supports this. They looked at how presidential approval ratings are related to objective indicators such as the economy, scandal, and important events. They found that two presidents over the years consistently had higher approval ratings than they “should” have had: Ronald Reagan and, yes, Barack Obama. Obama’s approval ratings have been about nine points higher than the economy would indicate.

What Reagan and Obama have in common is that both took office with the economy in terrible shape. No one else after Franklin Roosevelt inherited similarly terrible conditions. It’s certainly possible that the explanation for generous approval ratings for Reagan and Obama is that voters have been far less likely to penalize them for the economy — or perhaps far more likely to penalize the party that caused the mess — than they normally would have been.

If that’s true (and other explanations are certainly possible), then it would be consistent with the Bartels model. If people are more generous with approval ratings for presidents who take office when the economy is a wreck, then they might also be more likely to vote for those presidents. Which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, too.

None of that guarantees Obama will be reelected. We still don’t know what the economy will do this year, and the campaign still remains to be fought. But the phenomenon identified above suggests one of two possibilities. Either his approval ratings will continue to exceed economic indicators, which means gradual growth will translate into even larger gains. Or, even if Obama’s approval ratings remain where they are, he may still win comfortably if voters punish Republicans for the economy Obama inherited. Either scenario suggests voters may eventually be more sensible about who bears the responsibility for the economy than the pundits have led us to expect.