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What 2010 means for Obama in 2012 (and what it doesn't)

With conventional wisdom congealing around the idea that Democrats are likely to lose the House and narrowly hold on to their majority in the Senate, there are already plenty of people talking about what the election results a week from today might mean for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election race.

The most common analysis emerging from this chatter is that the election is nothing but bad news for Obama -- a rejection of the agenda he pushed over the last two years and a spark of encouragement for the men (and woman?) who are preparing to run against him on the Republican side.

But, a new Pew poll suggests that there is danger in reading too much about 2012 into next week's results.

Asked whether they would like to see Obama run for a second term, 47 percent said they would while 42 percent said they would prefer he not. (While the question is somewhat irrelevant -- Obama is running for reelection -- it does serve as a basic gauge of enthusiasm both for and against him.)

Those numbers may not look like much but when compared to the showing of past presidents on the question, Obama looks relatively strong.

Bill Clinton, for example, at this time in 1994 had 44 percent of people saying they would like him to run again and 47 percent saying they would prefer he not. Ronald Reagan's number were far more dismal; 36 percent wanted him to run for a second term while 51 percent didn't in August 1982.

The two ex-presidents who rated the highest on that question in the Pew poll -- Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush -- both went on to lose reelection. In the fall of 1990, 53 percent of people wanted Bush the elder to seek a second term. He did, and lost to Clinton. Ditto Jimmy Carter who, in the fall of 1978, had a solid 50 percent saying he should run for reelection. Reagan bested him two years later.

What that data suggests is that extrapolating too broadly from what happens next week to the 2012 race is dangerous. Much can change politically in two years -- as the past two years have shown -- and the Pew data shows that Obama stands at least as strong as past two-term presidents when it comes to a core enthusiasm question.

That's not to say, however, that all of the news in the Pew poll is encouraging for Obama as he looks toward 2012.

The most worrisome number? Forty seven percent of independents prefer Obama not run for reelection while just 37 percent say he should. Those numbers among independents are lower than every other modern president at this time in their term except for Reagan (34 percent).

Obama's struggles among independents mirrors the broader struggle of his party to win over unaffiliated voters since he came into office. Republican candidates for governor in Virginia and New Jersey carried independents in 2009 and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) won them overwhelmingly in a special election earlier this year.

National polling in the runup to this election, too, suggests independents are poised to back Republicans at roughly similar levels that they supported Democrats in 2006 -- a major swing that speaks to the volatility among this critical segment of the electorate.

While Obama allies rightly note that this President is more popular today with self identified Democrats than any other modern president at this time in their respective presidencies, his strength among the base won't counteract a continued slide with independent voters.

Take a look at the 2008 exit poll to understand why. Obama took 89 percent of self-identified Democrats while Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won 90 percent of self-identified Republicans. It was among the 29 percent of the electorate that called themselves independents where Obama cleaned up -- beating McCain 52 percent to 44 percent.

Any slippage in the margin among independents then is problematic for Obama -- whether or not he wins Democratic base voters overwhelmingly.

Broadly, history suggests that a Republican sweep in a week's time won't directly correlate to whether or not President Obama wins a second term in 2012. But, he must find a way to turn around his own -- and his party's -- standing among independents between now and then or he could be in for a rocky reelection fight.

By Chris Cillizza  | October 26, 2010; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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