By the numbers: Should the GOP be worrying about 2012?

The conventional wisdom is that, despite President Obama’s lackluster popularity ratings, the Republican Party hasn’t assembled a particularly strong field of potential challengers. And going by the polling numbers, Nate Silver says at, the conventional wisdom is right.

At this point in the last three presidential cycles, Silver says, both parties had potential candidates whose favorable ratings exceeded their unfavorables by double digits, and in every case one of those candidates became  the eventual nominee.

No one currently in the GOP field meets that criterion, Silver notes. The closest are Mike Huckabee, with a 40/32 favorable/unfavorable rating, and Mitt Romney at 36/32. And two of the best-known potential candidates, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, the negative polling numbers exceed the positive by double digits.

But go back a few more cycles, Brendan Nyhan counters at Huffington Post, and you see a different picture. Bill Clinton’s ratings were 15 percent favorable/12 percent unfavorable in April 1991, and he went on to win the Democratic nomination and beat incumbent George H. W. Bush. Bush, meanwhile, was wildly popular 15 months before the 1992 election, but was done in by a weakening economy.

Four years later, Republican Bob Dole had a huge edge in popularity over Clinton. But as the economy grew stronger, so did Clinton’s poll numbers, and he was re-elected easily. The moral, Nyhan says: It’s all about the economy.