The Country Wants a Republican President in General, but Not in Particular

I once won $100 on a political sucker bet. During the early part of the 1996 election cycle, before the Republican nominee had been selected, a fellow I know said that Clinton’s approval ratings were so low that his defeat was certain. This guy rashly offered 5:1 odds to anyone who believed Clinton would win; thereby was my double sawbuck transformed into a C-note come Election Day. As I explained to my victim, he had forgotten that no ballot offers a choice between one candidate and no President at all for the next 4 years. Generic disapproval thus doesn’t matter as long as people disapprove of you less (or approve of you more) than they do whoever runs against you.

This same phenomenon can be seen in this collection of polls today on Real Clear Politics. President Obama loses in the average of polls about a generic Republican candidate, but wins every average of polls when the poll question names a specific Republican opponent. The generic poll is clearly picking up some popular dissatisfaction with the President, but the rest of the polls show that whatever voters’ reservations about Obama, they are less severe than those they have about anyone who might run against him. That’s good news for President Obama.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “The Country Wants a Republican President in General, but Not in Particular”

  1. Generics win against real people because the person being polled can imagine whatever characteristics he or she wants in the generic candidate. Perhaps that question can be used to find some information about party identification or enthusiasm or some such, but I don’t think it can be used to determine the winner of an election because a real person has to run, not an imaginary superman who can appeal to everyone.

  2. The other factor is that people like Barack Obama much more than they approve of his presidency. (This is true on both the left and center, although probably not the right. How could you like a Kenyan Muslim socialist lawyer from Harvard?)

  3. So unless Obama can trick the GOP into nominating a specific Republican, he is toast. But he clearly has a fiendish plan to make them nominate one of these clowns, the only prayer he has for re-election.

  4. People forget this all the time. Really, ALL. THE. TIME.

    I wouldn’t be surprised, assuming the economy doesn’t get a lot worse, the difference between Obama and his opponent becomes a lot larger once the campaign has a single Republican on which to focus–and that’s true even if the candidate is Romney, who has earned the flip flopper label more than John Kerry allegedly ever could, even if John Kerry were to switch parties and change his voting record to match that of Sens. McConnell and Lee. And if the economy gets even slightly better, he’ll beat his opponent quite easily. If he’s somehow the luckiest man on the planet and the Republicans nominate someone like Cain, he will absolutely steamroll this person.

    I’ve certainly dreamed of Obama being more aggressive to, at the very least, draw a sharp contrast between him and the Republicans as he tries to gin up support for more stimulus. He’s been more of that lately, to be sure, and he could do even more without becoming a nasty, raving lunatic. But given his appeal, it makes sense he doesn’t want to get to close to the point where people would question what they like about him. For better or worse, I think he mostly knows what he’s doing when it comes to, you know, politics.

  5. “For better or worse, I think he mostly knows what he’s doing when it comes to, you know, politics.”

    Even if mostly not when it comes to anything else.

    IIRC, the generic specific gap has been this way for quite a long time, regardless of whether the incumbent was a Democrat or Republican. Voters just like specific Democrats more than Democrats in general, and specific Republicans less than Republicans in general.

    I believe this is due to the media environment both parties are exposed to. On the one hand, the MSM are fairly relentless in their attacks on Republican candidates, and protection of Democratic candidates, which shifts public opinion Democratwards for specific candidates. You can see this in the creation of scandals concerning Cain, and the failure to cover Obama’s scandals.

    OTOH, the MSM treats issues as though they were radioactive. This leaves the public’s opinion of the generic candidates, which is all about the party’s issues, unshifted.

    Hence the discrepancy.

    Maybe if the MSM didn’t avoid actual issue coverage, public opinion would shift Democratwards on the generic vote, too. Or maybe the MSM avoid issue coverage because they’re of the opinion they can’t spin things hard enough to keep the public from liking Republican positions, and are better off just not covering them. Don’t really know, we’d need a different media to perform that experiment.

    But, yes, once the Republicans pick a candidate, the MSM can focus it’s undivided attention on him or her, and the Republicans will probably wish they were running Mr. Generic for the office. Or at least that Obama were going to receive comparable attention…

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