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When Joseph Biden ran for president in 2020, he argued that he would be a different kind of leader than his predecessor, Donald J. Trump. Biden promised to be a more compassionate, more civil, and more competent president than Trump. But as the Democrat approached ten months in office, his once (comparatively) high approval ratings had sunk to Trumpian levels. In this Election Report,, voting and elections expert, Rhodes Cook, explores why that is and how presidential approval ratings are a predictor of election outcomes in recent years.

Document Outline
Biden’s Approval Ratings Take a Tumble
Biden’s Slump Impacts State Elections
A Sign of Things to Come in 2022

According to the Gallup Poll, which is used here because of its historical pedigree that dates back to the 1930s, Biden began his presidency with a 57 percent approval rating, a dozen points above where Trump started four years earlier. The latter never reached 50 percent in the Gallup approval rating in his entire presidency.

But as the year has unfolded, Biden’s rating has fallen much more quickly than Trump’s did in his opening months in office, to the point that Biden reached this November with an approval rating of 42 percent. That is just four percentage points higher than Trump’s approval rating (38 percent) at a similar point of his presidency in early November 2017. Democrats hoped that House passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on November 5 would provide a boost for the president in the polls, but that remains to be seen.

The low-key Biden started strong in the Oval Office, valued by many as an antidote to the controversial Trump. He won high marks for his diplomatic personality, embrace of bipartisanship, and sharp attention to the covid pandemic.

Biden’s Approval Ratings Take a Tumble

But as the summer moved toward fall, it was clear that Biden’s honeymoon period was over. Covid surged back, gasoline prices jumped, the nation’s supply chain slowed down, and congressional Democrats wrangled for month after month over passage of a pair of expensive infrastructure bills in spite of Biden’s efforts to negotiate a solution. And his problems did not stop there. The Biden administration drew widespread criticism for its handling of the country’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in late August, of which American allies complained they were not consulted.

From early June to late July, Biden’s Gallup approval rating dropped from 56 percent to 50 percent, then fell again to 43 percent by early September, with Afghanistan fresh in people’s minds. Biden dropped another point in October.

In its basic dynamic, Biden’s approval rating is the mirror image of Trump’s rating. At this stage of their presidencies, both were strong among voters in their own party, weak among the opposition, and well “under water” (below 50 percent) among independents. Of the three political indentifications, independents tend, by far, to be the most flexible. Since Biden’s inauguration, his support among Democrats has fallen by 6 percentage points (to 92 percent from 98 percent), 7 points among Republicans (to 4 percent from 11 percent), and 27 percent among independents (to 34 percent from 61 percent).

The strong support from voters in their own parties has kept members of Congress at least publicly loyal to Trump or Biden. In the Trump administration, there was an element of fear thrown in, in the form of the constant threat that Trump would harshly attack any GOP member that crossed him.

The same went for candidates in Republican primaries. From his entry into politics in 2015 to the present, Trump had been involved in GOP primaries up and down the ballot, endorsing some candidates and opposing others, usually with considerable effect.

But in general elections, where Democrats and independents also participate, Trump’s involvement has often been mixed. He has helped to turn out the Republican base, but at the same time has served to motivate the opposition to vote in even larger numbers.

Biden’s Slump Impacts State Elections

In November 2017, Republican gubernatorial candidates were thrashed in Virginia and New Jersey. In the midterm election the following November, when Trump’s presidential approval rating in the Gallup Poll stood at just 40 percent, congressional Republicans lost forty House seats and control of Congress’s lower chamber.

In November 2020, with Biden at the helm, Democrats lost all three constitutional offices in Virginia (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general) and the state House of Delegates, in a state in which they had enjoyed the upper hand for much of the last two decades. In addition, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy barely held onto the New Jersey governorship in a race no one was expecting to be close.

Biden’s role in the recent elections was more subtle than Trump’s prominent involvement. Biden is not the rabble rouser that his predecessor was. Rather, his campaign appearances in 2021 were largely low-key events with a limited ripple effect, that showed little ability to rouse the Democratic base. In both Virginia and New Jersey, voter enthusiasm was on the Republican side.

Biden had carried both states in 2020 by double digits percentagewise, when Democrats were able to marshal a strong anti-Trump vote. This time, in spite of the best efforts of Virginia Democrats to tie the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin, to Trump, voters in the Old Dominion appeared to be guided more by other factors, including education, the economy, and their current feelings about Biden’s job performance.

In November 2, 2021, Election Day exit polls in Virginia, the Biden’s approval rating stood at 45 percent (a few points above his national standing in the Gallup Poll). More than 90 percent of Virginia voters who gave him a thumbs up cast their ballots for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. However, of the 54 percent of Virginia voters who disapproved of Biden, more than 90 percent backed the victorious Youngkin. And independents across the state, who voted for Biden by nearly 20 percentage points last year, swung to Youngkin this time by nearly ten points.

A Sign of Things to Come in 2022

Next up: the midterm election of 2022. As always, candidates will matter, campaigns will matter, money will matter, issues will matter, intensity will matter. And so too will Biden’s presidential approval rating, which will serve as a reflection of voter reaction to the president’s leadership as well as the Democrats’ legislative agenda.

The party’s leaders are hopeful that House passage of the long-delayed bipartisan infrastructure bill in early November will mark the start of a Biden comeback. But he has a lot of ground to make up over the next year. And if his approval rating is still stuck at Trumpian levels under 50 percent next fall, Democrats could find it virtually impossible to hold their tenuous majorities in Congress.

 
Document Citation
Biden’s honeymoon period gives way to approval rating similar to Trump’s. (2021). http://library.cqpress.com/elections
Document ID: electrpts-2165-117737-2992194
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/elections/electrpts-2165-117737-2992194