Biden's Approval Ratings: How Much Do they Matter?
Democratic chances in the midterms have improved without a dramatic shift in President Biden's approval ratings
Back in April, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain sent a seemingly innocuous tweet:
Ron’s tweet was accurate. Macron had low approval ratings and won easily against a Right Wing extremist with a tenuous grasp on science, economics, and math. The odds that the 2024 Republican nominee is more LePen than Lincoln are close to 100 percent.
The online political cognoscenti lost their minds over the tweet. The tweet was in response to Biden’s slumping approval rating and a growing (and premature) debate about whether the President should run for reelection. This discussion was also happening at the nadir of Democratic optimism about the upcoming midterms. Would Biden’s falling approval ratings drag down the party?
For generations, presidential approval ratings were considered the best determinants of presidential success. Clinton, Obama, and Trump were below 50 for their first midterms and lost a lot of seats. George W. Bush was well above 50 (thanks to politicizing the shit out of a terrorist attack) and won seats in the House and Senate. But politics is not static. Just because something was true for a long time doesn’t mean it will always be true.
It doesn’t need to be stated, but I will state it anyway. High approval ratings are better than lower approval ratings. We would feel differently about this election if Biden was in the low 50s instead of the low 40s (or high 30s, depending on the poll).
However, some recent data points (including the French election that Klain tweeted about) suggest we look at presidential approval ratings with more nuance.
The Problem of Small Sample Sizes
Prognostication is at the core of forecasting an election. We predict the future based on what happened in the past.
Pundits are always looking for a historical parallel. Will this election be like 1994 when Dems lost everywhere? Or will it be like 2010 when they were clobbered in the House but performed better in the Senate? Is this 1982 because of inflation or is it 1998 because of a low employment rate?
Unfortunately, political forecasting suffers from three problems. First, polling might be broken beyond recognition. In researching this post, it was almost impossible to look at Trump’s 2020 approval rating because every poll was off by so many points. Second, politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The political environment is dictated by an innumerable number of quickly shifting factors. Finally, there is a massive sample size problem. There have only been 46 presidents in the history of the country.
When we say President X had a low approval rating and lost Y seats, it’s informative but not as instructive as we think. Still, we can look at long-term trends to inform our analysis.
Is 45 the New 50?
The four most polarizing presidents in American history are our four most recent presidents. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but probably not. Bill Clinton was scandal-plagued. George W. Bush was an incompetent buffoon who started a war for no reason, and Barack Obama was Black in a nation filled with racial animus. But Joe Biden? Come on. His demeanor is moderate. His agenda is popular. He doesn’t have a polarizing bone in his body. Polarization is measured by the gap in approval between the two parties. And based on Gallup polling, Biden’s first year in office saw essentially the same gap as Trump’s fourth year in office when he spread the Big Lie, was impeached, and killed tens of thousands through narcissistic ineptitude.
In recent years, fewer members of the other party are willing to say they approve of a president. This lowers the polling ceiling for a president. In 1998, Bill Clinton received an approval rating in the high 60s during impeachment because many Republicans stated they approved of Clinton even if they didn’t vote for him. That would be impossible to achieve in this day and age. Biden’s polling high was in the low 50s — within a few votes of his 2020 win number.
Once again, high approval ratings are better than lower ones, but today’s 45 approval rating means something different than it did in previous midterm elections.
The Rise of Negative Partisanship
One consequence of increased polarization is the rise of something called negative partisanship. Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webber, two Emory University researchers who studied the phenomenon, described it as such in Politico Magazine:
Over the past few decades, American politics has become like a bitter sports rivalry, in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.
Pew Research has tracked the rise of negative partisanship over the years and their polling shows a dramatic increase since 2014:
Today, 58% of Republicans have a very unfavorable impression of the Democratic Party, up from 46% in 2014 and just 32% during the 2008 election year. Among Democrats, highly negative views of the GOP have followed a similar trajectory – from 37% in 2008 to 43% in 2014 and 55% currently.
Negative partisanship helps explain why so many Republicans stick with Trump despite his incompetence, corruption, and treason. It helps explain why Trump almost won in 2020 despite low approval ratings. And it helps explain why Democrats have a surprisingly good chance in these midterms despite historically suboptimal approval ratings for Biden.
I expect/hope Biden’s numbers will go up in the wake of lower gas prices and a run of important victories. However, his polling swoon this last year has been driven by two factors. Independent voters souring on his leadership and a drop in Democratic support. In 2021, Biden averaged a 91 percent approval rating among Democrats in Gallup’s polling. In July 2022 (before his recent run of success), Biden’s Democratic approval rating was 78 percent.
Though some Democrats are down(ish) on Biden, it doesn’t indicate they plan to vote for a Republican or abstain from voting this fall. In a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 80 percent of Democrats approve of the job that Joe Biden is doing as President. However, 94 percent of Democrats say they plan to vote for a Democrat in this year’s Congressional election. That 14-point delta squares the circle between Democrats’ improving odds this fall and Biden’s current approval rating.
I once again feel compelled to (re)state the obvious. Every Democrat should want (and work to make) Biden’s approval rating as high as possible. But lower presidential approval ratings are a product of a changing political environment, and ratings have little to do with who is in the Oval Office. Approval ratings matter, but maybe not as much as they once did.