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Poll: Hillary Clinton the Early 2016 Frontrunner, But Barely

Image: US-POLITICS-CLINTON

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discusses "Smart Power: Security Through Inclusive Leadership" at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, December 3, 2014. JIM WATSON / AFP - Getty Images

Call Hillary Clinton the early presidential frontrunner - but barely.

That's the result from a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which finds that half of American voters - 50 percent - saying they could see themselves supporting her if she runs for the White House in 2016, while 48 percent oppose her.

Although that margin of support is small, it stands in sharp contrast to the numbers for well-known Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced on Tuesday that he's "actively" exploring a presidential bid.

More than a year before the first votes will be cast:

  • Just 31 percent of all voters say they could see themselves supporting Bush in 2016, while 57 percent say they couldn't support him;
  • 33 percent could possibly support 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, versus 60 percent who oppose him;
  • And 27 percent could back New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, while 53 percent couldn't support him.

Despite these numbers - which could certainly change as the presidential field becomes clearer - Clinton is far from a lock on the presidency.

Chuck Todd: A Jeb Bush run helps Hillary Clinton 2:49

A whopping 71 percent of American voters want the next president to take a different approach than President Barack Obama's; Clinton served as his first-term secretary of state.

And by 40 percent to 38 percent, voters prefer a Republican to win the White House in 2016 instead of a Democrat.

"This is an electorate -by a large margin - looking for change," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his colleagues at Hart Research Associates.

Breaking down the Democratic and Republican fields

Still, Clinton has a substantial lead among Democratic voters - 82 percent say they could see themselves supporting if she runs, versus 15 percent who can't.

By contrast, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., (37 percent support, 25 percent oppose) and Vice President Joe Biden (51 percent support, 41 percent oppose) have less appeal among Democrats.

Among Republican voters, the leaders are Romney (63 percent support, 33 percent oppose), Bush (55 percent support, 34 percent oppose), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (47 percent support, 39 percent oppose) and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. (47 percent support, 34 percent oppose).

Looks Like Jeb Bush is Running 4:28

Christie, meanwhile, is in the net-negative territory (40 percent support, 43 percent oppose).

Obama's job approval increases to 45 percent

The NBC/WSJ poll also finds President Obama's overall job approval at 45 percent among all adults - which is up one point since last month, and which is his highest rating since Oct. 2013 (at the beginning of the government shutdown).

This uptick comes amid some increased optimism about the state of the U.S. economy: 31 percent say the economy will improve within the next year, which is the highest mark here since July 2013.

And a combined 50 percent believe that the recent drop in gas prices is having either a "great deal" or "quite a bit" of impact on them.

That said, nearly two-thirds of Americans - 64 percent - think the country is headed in the wrong direction, the 15th-straight NBC/WSJ poll showing this number to be in the 60s or higher.

Only 16 percent of all respondents say Obama has gotten the message from last month's midterm elections and is making adjustments (compared with 35 percent who said this after the 2010 midterms).

And a majority of Americans - 52 percent - describe 2014 as either "one of the worst years" or "below average."

But that is the lowest combined percentage here since Dec. 2004.

"There are some rays of sunshine," says Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

Gov. Jindal: 'I Don't Care About Poll Numbers' 2:11

Other poll findings

  • Congress' job rating stands at a mere 16 percent, though that's a slight increase from the 12 percent who approved right before the 2014 midterms.
  • After Obama's recent executive action on immigration, just 40 percent approve of his handling of immigration.
  • And the Democratic Party's favorable/unfavorable number is at 37 percent positive, 39 percent negative, while the GOP's score is 30 percent positive, 45 percent negative.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Dec. 10-14 of 1,000 adults, including 350 cell phone-only respondents and another 21 reached by cell phone but who also have a landline.

The margin of error among all 1,000 adults is plus-minus 3.1 percentage points, while the margin of error among all 836 registered voters is plus-minus 3.4 percentage points.