Republicans have engaged in quite a bit of handwringing over the primary fight this year.  They worry that a passionate debate over principles, plus the perceived weakness of each remaining candidate, will make Barack Obama stronger in the national election.  Those worries might well translate into reality, but my perception is that this is no different than any other cycle with an open primary — no different than, say, 1980 — when Democrats had a weak incumbent and the GOP had several candidates with all sorts of perceived weaknesses in the running, including Ronald Reagan, who was considered early in the cycle to be too conservative (and too old) to appeal to a broad enough swath of voters to prevent a second Jimmy Carter term.

Barack Obama may look strong in contrast to the primary battle taking place, but that won’t last too long.  And as a Survey USA poll of registered voters in one key Democratic state shows, Obama is far from strong at all:

9 months from Election Day, Barack Obama has a net approval rating of Minus 5 in Washington State, according to a SurveyUSA poll conducted exclusively for KING-TV Seattle. 42% today approve of the job he is doing as president, 47% disapprove. But: the number of Washington voters who say Obama has been a worse president than they expected is 2.5 times greater than the number who say Obama has been better than they expected. On specific aspects of his administration, Obama is:

Plus 14 on his handling of Iraq.
Minus 1 on his handling of Afghanistan.
Minus 19 on his handling of the economy.
Minus 20 on his handling of health care.
Minus 26 on his handling of the federal deficit.

Obama’s job approval among Democrats and Republicans are perfect mirror images — 85/11 and 11/85, respectively.  Among independents, though, he gets only a 37/47.  Among Hispanics (8% of respondents), Obama gets a 40/24 — a very weak rating — and among Asians and other ethnicities (excluding whites, blacks, and Hispanics) comprising 11% of the respondents, it’s 42/49.  Obama’s approval sinks badly among the age demos most likely to vote: among 50-64YOs, it’s 38/58, and only a little better among seniors, 44/52.  Even among younger voters, Obama’s job approval is only 43/36 for 18-34YOs and 47/42 for 35-49YOs, indicating a significant lack of enthusiasm. Obama gets a weakly positive 46/41 among those earning below $40K, but a 37/52 from those earning above $40K.

Why is this important?  Obama won the state of Washington by seventeen points in 2008, and it is a bastion of Democratic strength and enthusiasm.  Let’s take a look at these same demos in the 2008 exit polls, to the extent they match up:

  • 30-44YOs: Obama won 56/41 (too few 81/29YOs in 2008 to publish results)
  • 50-64YOs: Obama won 60/38
  • Voters who say economy was biggest issue (60% in 2008): Obama won 58/40
  • Independents: Obama won 55/39
  • Earn below $50K (35% of vote): Obama won 64/33
  • Earn above $50K (65% of vote): Obama won 55/43

Those numbers indicated a much higher degree of enthusiasm, perhaps because Obama provided a blank slate instead of a record.  Now that he has a record on which to run, the enthusiasm even in a Democratic bastion like Washington has entirely dissipated.  That doesn’t mean Obama will necessarily lose the state in the fall, as that depends on the Republican candidate and the economy, and Washington will be a difficult state for Republicans to win anyway.  But if Obama is at a -19 on the economy, a -20 on health care, and a -26 on the deficit in such a safe Democratic state like Washington, how well do people think he’s playing in swing states in the Rust Belt and the Midwest, where Republicans are more competitive?

It’s far too early for pessimism, as I told Dave Weigel yesterday, and Republicans need to have more faith in their agenda.