WASHINGTON — Democratic voters are closely divided over whether President Barack Obama should be challenged within the party for a second term in 2012, an Associated Press-Knowledge Networks Poll finds.
That glum assessment carries over into the nation at large, which is similarly divided over whether Obama should be a one-term president.
A real Democratic challenge to Obama seems unlikely at this stage and his re-election bid is a long way off. But the findings underscore how disenchanted his party has grown heading into the congressional elections Tuesday.
The AP-KN poll has tracked a group of people and their views since the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign. Among all 2008 voters, 51 percent say he deserves to be defeated in November 2012 while 47 percent support his re-election – essentially a tie.
Among Democrats, 47 percent say Obama should be challenged for the 2012 nomination and 51 percent say he should not be opposed. Those favoring a contest include most who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton's unsuccessful faceoff against Obama for the 2008 nomination. The poll did not ask if Democrats would support particular challengers.
Political operatives and polling experts caution that Obama's poll standings say more about people's frustrations today with the economy and other conditions than they do about his re-election prospects. With the next presidential election two years away – an eon in politics – the public's view of Obama could easily improve if the economy revives or if he outmaneuvers Republicans on Capitol Hill or in the presidential campaign.
"Democrats currently disappointed with Obama will likely be less disappointed if he spends the next two years fighting a GOP Congress" should Republicans do well on Election Day, said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor and polling analyst.
Even so, the poll illustrates how Obama's reputation has frayed since 2008. It suggests lingering bad feelings from Democrats' bitter primary fight, when he and Clinton – now his secretary of state – roughly split the popular vote. Political professionals of both parties said the findings are a warning for the president, whose formal re-election effort is expected to begin stirring next year.
"It's an indicator of things he needs to address between now and then," said Kiki McLean, a Democratic strategist who worked in Clinton's 2008 campaign.
The White House declined comment on the results.
The 1,254 randomly chosen people in the survey are from a group that was polled 11 times during the 2008 campaign by AP, Knowledge Networks and Yahoo News. The poll finds that over that period, Obama has retained most supporters while seeing some erosion:
_Nearly 3 in 10, or 29 percent, of Democrats who said during the spring of 2008 that they were backing Obama for the Democratic nomination now say they want him to be challenged in 2012. Seven in 10 want him renominated.
_Sixty-one percent of Democrats who said in spring 2008 that they were backing Clinton now say Obama should face an opponent for the party's nomination.
_More than 8 in 10 overall who on Election Day 2008 said they'd voted for Obama want to re-elect him, though 1 in 7 say he should be defeated.
_More than 1 in 4 who said in October 2008 that Obama understands the problems of ordinary Americans now say he doesn't. The same is true for those who said he is innovative, cares about people like them and shares their values.
_Of those who said right after the 2008 election that they had a favorable opinion of Obama, nearly one-quarter now view him negatively.
"Nobody wants to work with this guy," said Steven Fagin, 45, of Cincinnati. A Democrat and 2008 Obama voter, he cited deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans. "We're never going to get anything done."
The survey found that those likeliest to oppose Obama's re-election include men, older people, those without college degrees and whites. Those groups mostly supported his 2008 Republican opponent, John McCain.
Three in four Democrats want Obama re-elected while nearly 9 in 10 Republicans oppose it. Independents lean slightly against Obama, 46 percent to 36 percent.
Democrats saying Obama should face a primary challenge tend to be less educated, less liberal and likelier to have been 2008 Clinton backers.
Democratic activists say there are no signs of a serious primary challenge to Obama, though some speculate an effort could come from liberals who think he's drifted too far to the center.
Recent history shows presidents' early polling numbers mean little about their re-election prospects.
At this stage two years before their re-elections, Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had approval ratings that were lower than Obama's now, according to the Gallup Poll; both men won a second term. The ratings for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were better than Obama's; both lost.
"Presidents Mondale, Dole and McCain all speak to the very substantial limits of off-year polling results," said Bill McInturff, McCain's 2008 pollster, as he named three politicians who fell short of the White House. Walter Mondale lost to Reagan in 1984 while Clinton defeated Bob Dole in 1996.
The AP-Knowledge Networks Poll was conducted from Sept. 17 to Oct. 7. The original panel of adults was randomly selected using traditional telephone polling methods, but interviews were conducted online. People without computers or Internet access were given that technology for free.
The margin of sampling error for all 1,254 adults is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. It is plus or minus 6.5 points for the 571 Democrats, and 5.3 points for the 852 people who said on Election Day 2008 that they had voted.
Associated Press Polling Director Trevor Tompson, Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta, News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and political writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.
(This versionorrects in 24th paragraph that Mondale lost presidential race in 1984, not 1988.)