Putting Biden's Poll Numbers in Context
Digging into the details of the polling that has Democrats in perpetual panic
Last week, Vanity Fair released one of those stories that seemed designed in a lab to get political junkies talking and tweeting (and therefore, more people clicking). The article dug into the question of what happens if Joe Biden decides not to run for reelection. My old friend and former Obama campaign colleague, Cornell Belcher, told author Chris Smith: The result would be “complete fucking chaos in the Democratic primary.”
The context for this speculation is two-fold: Biden’s current political position, which has a lot of Democrats concerned. Just as folks digested the Vanity Fair article, a new poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal drove home the concerns and further upped the panic level among Democrats. Michael Cohen (the progressive writer/pundit, not the Trump flunkie turned wannabe Resistance hero) tweeted:
Cohen is not wrong. This poll is far from good news. And I am not going to try to convince you otherwise, but I think we need to put it — and the rest of the polling — in context to understand where we are and what we can do about these ratings as a party.
Are Biden’s Numbers Historically Bad?
All of the analyses of Biden’s polls demonstrate they are among the lowest in history for any president at this point in their presidency. The only president with a lower average approval is — of course — Donald Trump. This observation is technically accurate. Gallup, which has the best historical information on presidential polling, finds Biden’s approval to be 42/53. The average for presidents in their “fifth quarter” in Gallup polling is 59. Being second to lowest in modern history and 17 points below the “average” is disheartening. But consider two ideas before you crawl under your desk: First, like all presidential comparisons, this one suffers from a small sample size. Gallup polling only goes back to the 1950s, meaning we are only talking about eleven different presidents. Therefore, a few numbers can impact the average. Both Bushs had very high numbers (43 and 41) at this juncture in their presidencies because of 9/11 and the Gulf War. Second, polarization has worsened over time, which means that fewer and fewer members of the other party are willing to tell a pollster they approve of a president. This dynamic lowers the ceiling on presidential approval. There is an apples to oranges element when comparing Biden’s numbers to his predecessors’.
Are Democrats Doomed in 2022?
If Biden’s approval ratings are in the high 30s or low 40s this fall, it will be very hard for Democrats to keep — let alone expand — our narrow majorities. As Perry Bacon wrote last year for FiveThirtyEight:
Presidential approval ratings in recent years have been a decent indicator of what will happen in the midterms. In the last four (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018), the incumbent president’s disapproval rating was higher than his approval, and in all four cases, the president’s party lost a sizable bloc of House seats. (The Senate results aren’t quite as tied to presidential approval.) The last time the president’s party gained House seats in a midterm election was in 2002, when George W. Bush had sky-high ratings in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
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