Wasn’t that the message of the midterms, especially after Barack Obama went out of his way to defend Democrats by warning voters that his agenda was at risk?  In this case, it was the same as waving a red cape in front of a bull — or a whole Pamplona village of them.  Quinnipiac’s latest survey shows that only 43% of voters say Obama deserves a second term, but that number changes a bit when specific alternatives are mentioned:

President Barack Obama does not deserve a second term, American voters say 49 – 43 percent, and he is in a statistical dead heat with possible Republican challengers Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. President Obama leads Sarah Palin 48 – 40 percent.

Romney, Huckabee, Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are bunched together when Republican voters are asked who they prefer for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University survey finds. …

In trial heats for 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney receives 45 percent to 44 percent for Obama, while the president gets 46 percent to 44 percent for Mr. Huckabee. Matched against Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a virtual unknown to most voters, the president leads 45 – 36 percent.

“At this point, former Alaska Gov. Palin runs the worst against President Obama. Daniels is essentially a generic Republican because of his anonymity to most voters. Obama only gets 45 percent against him while he gets 48 percent against Ms. Palin,” said Brown. “She is very unpopular among independents and although she recently said she thought she could defeat Obama, the data does not now necessarily support that assertion.”

In another potential blow to Obama’s re-election chances, his favorability rating has descended to a 48/48 split — and a 43/52 among independents.  That deals a blow to what had been Obama’s best asset on the trail.  Even when his performance approval slid badly this year, his personal favorables remained relatively strong.  That no longer appears to be the case, and without that, it will take a big economic rebound to get voters to reassess Obama in 2012.

Interestingly, Obama only gets lukewarm support from his own party.  Democrats surveyed in this poll said they didn’t want to see Obama challenged in a primary, but by a relatively unenthusiastic 64/27 split.  That sounds overwhelming on most questions, but in this case it shows that more than a quarter of Democrats want their sitting President to potentially lose the party nomination for a second term.  Less than two-thirds of them want to avoid that outcome.  That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Obama’s incumbency by Democratic voters, and it points to another cycle of a wide enthusiasm gap in 2012 even in a presidential campaign.

However, it’s still far too early to count Obama out.  Americans tend to re-elect Presidents, even those who have popularity issues within their own party, and two years is a long time.  If the economy catches fire and jobless declines sharply over the next year, Obama could easily rebound to win a second term.  Unfortunately for Obama, it will take the kind of economic policies he opposes to enable that kind of explosive growth in the next year, when it counts — lower taxes, reduced regulation, and deep cuts in federal spending to stabilize the nation’s monetary policy.  Republicans in the House could actually deliver these policies, and if the Senate and Obama don’t get in the way of them, Democrats and Obama could realize their benefit.  Don’t entirely dismiss Obama’s instinct for political survival.

In the same vein, the head-to-head matchups in this poll don’t mean much at all.  Voters haven’t had an opportunity to see any of these candidates in campaign mode for the current environment.  Their eventual head-to-head potential won’t be known until the end of 2011, after a year of explicit campaigning and some defining moments in debates.  We still don’t really know the full roster of candidates yet, for that matter.  The only real indicative value in these poll questions is the weak support Obama gets against any of them, and his inability to muster a 50% rating from a pool of registered voters in any GOP matchup.  The likely voter results, if a likely-voter model for 2012 could be derived at the moment, would probably show Obama doing significantly worse.