The case for “neither” is a lot stronger in this instance, for the same reasons. Seven years ago while addressing the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), my new boss Arianna Huffington offered a quip about a similar presidential vote preference question asked nearly four years before the 2004 election:
This is really about as meaningful as phrasing a question in the following way, which I will suggest you try one day, “If the world were to stop spinning, and all life were placed in a state of suspended animation, who would you like to see in the Oval Office when you thawed out?”Yes, I’m guilty of sucking up a bit with that reference, but she’s right. How many ordinary voters have thought deeply about a contest between Obama and Palin? How many were forming an opinion on the spot when interviewed, only after hearing the question posed over the telephone?
My best advice to anyone trying to understand Sarah Palin’s potential is to put aside these two measures and focus instead on questions about opinions that are closer to real, such as Palin’s favorability rating (as asked in both the PPP survey and the results released by Gallup earlier today). Ordinary people do have genuine, pre-existing opinions about Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Polls are on most solid ground when they measure these perceptions separately, rather than asking about a still hypothetical contest that has so far been of interest mostly to political junkies.
All head-to-head presidential polls before, oh, spring of the election year are really completely useless. They're mostly the result of two things: the president's approval rating, and the name recognition and favorable ratings of the prospective opponent, with most of the weight on the former. Therefore, everyone is far better off, if they want to know how the president is doing now, just looking at his approval rating. And if you want to guess how he'll be doing two years from now, go find an honest economist, ask for her best guess about disposable income two years into the future, notice that she's going to give you an answer with an enormous error bar, and conclude that we don't know how vulnerable Obama will be. Or, at least, our political judgments about these things is more useful than the polling, at this stage.
Muskie was beating Nixon in the polls until very late in the game; Mondale was, if I remember correctly, ahead of Reagan in most of 1983. I don't really remember, but I'm sure that George H.W. Bush was far ahead of any Democrat in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. It's not that it doesn't matter -- if Obama was at 35% approval, it might well affect his success in Congress and elsewhere. It's just not additional information.