Looking to the 2012 race

With Republican presidential wannabes already jostling for position, it’s clear that — for better or worse — the 2012 presidential campaign has begun. So at Daily Kos, we’ve begun our national weekly polling for the cycle, and our inaugural baseline poll by Public Policy Polling paints a clear picture of the state of Obama’s reelection campaign. 

Obama begins the cycle with tepid ratings. His favorability rate is 49 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable, while he remains underwater with his approval ratings at 46 percent approveing, 50 percent disapproving. Furthermore, that number is 37 approving and 57 disapproving among independents. Tea Party supporters disapprove of Obama by an 87-12 margin, while non-Tea Party members approving of Obama by a 59-38 margin. 

Unsurprisingly, Obama’s greatest approvals come from liberals (80-18), moderates (61-33), African-Americans (81-15) and Latinos (59-39). While young voters are a base demographic for Obama, his 51-49 approval rating among 19- to 29-year-olds isn’t anything for Obama to crow about. 

In head-to-head match-ups against a generic “Republican opponent,” Obama sports a slight edge, 47-45. The Democratic numbers (86-11 for Obama) are practically mirror images of the Republican ones (85-8 for the Republican). Independents narrowly favor the generic Republican, 43-40. 

Whites opt for the generic Republican by a 53-38 margin, while African-Americans (87-12) and Latinos (60-33) give Obama strong support. Tea Party supporters opt for the Republican 83-12, while non-Tea Partiers choose Obama 54-39. 

The 18-to-29-year-old cohort opts for Obama at a 52-43 clip, while those older than 65 opt for the Republican 50-42. Regionally, Obama wins the Northeast 50-43 and the West 56-36. The generic Republican wins the South 52-40. The Midwest? A 45-45 deadlock.

If Republicans are hoping for an intensity gap to give them an edge like they enjoyed in 2010, the early numbers don’t look good for them. Eighty-two percent of Republicans are “very excited” or “somewhat excited” to vote in 2012. Among Democrats, it’s 85 percent. The three-point difference might be within the margin of error, but it’s certainly the first time since 2008 that Democrats exhibit no intensity gap.

So yes, it’s early, and polling this far out doesn’t serve any predictive purpose. What it does do is offer a baseline to gauge trends in the next year and a half.

Will Obama’s numbers improve among independents? 

Will Democrats be able to hold their own in the intensity department? John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTrump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery One year later, neither party can get past last year's election MORE, Sarah Palin and violent Tea Party types will likely do more to keep that gap close — or create a pro-Democratic one — than Democratic leaders or Obama will ever manage. But without their base, Democrats threaten a repeat of 2010.

The West and South look nearly locked down. There will be competitive states in the periphery (like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Colorado), but those regions are exhibiting rapid and stark political polarization. The biggest regional battleground in 2012 will be the Midwest — Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin — currently deadlocked. Given the economic devastation of the region, much of Obama’s fortunes will depend on economic recovery.

Finally, can a real Republican nominee perform as well as a generic one? Tea Party pressures will inevitably turn the GOP primary into a frothy mix of paranoia, conspiracy theories, immigrant-bashing, howling about “socialism” and all other manner of craziness. Any candidate who can emerge from that morass is likely to be severely flawed in a general election, and may well pale in comparison to the blank slate of an idealized generic Republican.

Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.