The Midterms Are Upon Us
At an event in Washington, D.C. about a decade ago, philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates said, “One of the statistics that always amazes me is the approval of the Chinese government, not elected, is over 80 percent. The approval of the U.S. government, fully elected, is 19 percent.”
“Isn’t it supposed to be different?” Gates asked. “Aren't we supposed to like the people that we elected?”
Democrats might be asking that question today.
Just 12 months ago, President Joe Biden won the White House with more than 51 percent of the vote. He received more individual votes than any other presidential candidate in U.S. history and saw his party take control of the Senate. His approval rating actually increased a bit between the election and his inauguration. By inauguration day, 53 percent of Americans approved of President Biden. By March, that number was 55 percent.
One year after the 2020 presidential election and things look a lot different.
According to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Monday, only 38 percent of Americans approve of the job President Biden is doing. Almost three in five Americans, 59 percent, disapprove.
What has happened, and what could these numbers mean for next year’s midterm congressional elections? Let’s take a look. But first, let us provide a quick refresher on what happened last week, on Election Day 2021, and how analysts say presidential approval impacted that outcome.
A Deeper Look at Virginia’s Election Results
According to exit polls in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected as the state’s next governor, only 45 percent of residents said they approve of the job President Biden is doing; 54 percent said they disapproved.
As CNN reported, Youngkin won those who disapprove of Biden’s performance by a 91 percent-to-nine percent margin. Those numbers are similar to what we saw earlier this fall in the recall election of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Californians who said they disapproved of President Biden voted against Gov. Newsom 88 percent to 12 percent.
CNN concluded, “Views of the sitting president dictate how people vote down ballot.”
Or, put another way: the more Americans who disapprove of President Biden, the more Americans who are likely to vote against his party’s congressional candidates next year.
CNN noted President Biden’s approval is down all over the country, not just in reliably Republican or in toss-up states like Virginia. More New Jersey voters disapprove of President Biden than approve, for example — and President Biden won that Democratic stronghold by 16 points last year. CNN also reported, “Polling from other states Biden won by more than five points a year ago, such as Maryland and New Hampshire, shows that his popularity has totally collapsed.”
In other words: if presidential approval really matters, the GOP could pick up seats in Congress in virtually any state next year.
Why Are President Biden’s Approval Ratings Falling?
Pollsters and journalists have spent a lot of ink trying to explain the reason Americans seem to have fallen out of love with Joe Biden.
The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much with us is one reason.
Another explanation could be the Build Back Better plan. As USA Today wrote, “Americans overwhelmingly support the [bipartisan, $1.2 trillion] infrastructure bill Biden is about to sign, but they are split on the more expensive and further-reaching Build Back Better Act.”
In fact, only one in four Americans believe that legislation would actually help them or their families.
Another explanation could be the economy. A CNN poll released this week found 36 percent of Americans cite the economy as the most pressing problem facing the country. (That issue ranks higher than any.) Of voters who say the economy is the top issue, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) said President Biden hasn’t been attentive enough to this issue. And while unemployment rates are falling and the stock market is rising, Gallup’s economic confidence index is at negative 25. That reading was in positive territory just this past summer.
The economy and the pandemic might not get better any time soon. Here is how The Hill outlined the headwinds facing Democrats and the president going into 2022:
Businesses are facing labor shortages that could snarl travel during the holiday season;
Supply chain constraints are impacting Americans’ ability to purchase everything from automobiles to groceries;
Rising gas and heating prices “will add to those headaches”; and
As Americans move inside for the winter, it could result in more COVID cases.
All of these factors combine to mean most Americans are ready for change. In fact, according to the USA Today/Suffolk University poll, 64 percent of Americans do not want President Biden to run for a second term in 2024. Surprisingly, that number includes 28 percent of Democrats.
Vice President Kamala Harris is having approval troubles of her own, meanwhile. According to the elections website FiveThirtyEight, Vice President Harris’ favorability is lower at this point in her term than those of former Vice Presidents Mike Pence, Biden, Dick Cheney, and Al Gore ten months into their respective vice presidencies. The website said Vice President Harris’s “favorability began to decline in June after she was tasked with tackling immigration” — an issue that is one of the most divisive in the United States.
With Americans feeling anxiety about a number of issues, it will be hard for approval ratings to recover.
Based on history, what is likely to happen if they do not?
Presidential Approval and Past Midterm Elections
According to the bipartisan nonprofit No Labels, “The party of a president with an approval rating below 50 percent often faces a blowout defeat” in midterm congressional elections. Gallup has offered an even finer point: presidents with job approval ratings below 50 percent have seen their party lose 37 House seats, on average, in midterm elections.
One year before the 2018 midterm elections, former President Trump’s approval rating was just one point lower than President Biden’s (37 percent). Republicans lost 41 House seats that year. (They did gain two Senate seats.) Former President Bill Clinton lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1994 when his approval rating was 48 percent one year before election day.
To be sure, approval ratings that are above 50 percent do not guarantee midterm success. One year before the 2010 election, 52 percent of Americans said they approved of the job that former President Barack Obama was doing, but Democrats still lost six Senate and 63 House seats. The late President Ronald Reagan’s approval rating was 53 percent in November 1981. In November 1982, the GOP lost one Senate seat and 26 House seats.
Indeed, according to Gallup, presidents with approval above 50 percent have an average loss of 14 House seats in midterm elections.
What about trajectory? Does that matter?
There is not much data to compare, but immediate past precedent does not bode well for Democrats. Former Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama all saw their approval ratings dip further in the run up to election day. Donald Trump’s numbers rose from 37 percent one year before election day to 41 percent — and it didn’t help stem the GOP’s losses in 2018.
Generic Ballot Trending Toward Republicans
Indeed, this history seems to be playing out already as pollsters ask their “generic ballot” questions for 2022. This question simply asks: would you rather vote for, a Democrat or Republican?
The USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that, if the election were today, Americans would vote for a Republican congressional candidate over a Democratic one by 46 percent to 38 percent. In FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot average, however, Democrats are still ahead — albeit by one point only.
FiveThirtyEight said that, like presidential approval, the generic-ballot polling average “has been very good at predicting” House results.
The website’s data shows a more nuanced picture, however. Democrats were ahead by a couple of points in early generic balloting in 1994 and 2010 — but then lost big. Republicans were ahead by 0.3 percent in 1982, and lost seats.
It seems like when the difference between the two parties is very narrow, as it was in 1982, 1994, and 2010, the advantage goes to the party that does not have control of the White House. The 2018 congressional election provides additional evidence: that year, Democrats were up by an impressive 8.3 points in early generic balloting. They went on to win big.
The fact that Democrats are up only one point on the generic ballot average right now is not encouraging for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and their caucuses. In the House, a loss of just three Democratic seats would shift control of the chamber to the GOP. And in the Senate, where there is currently a 50-50 tie, a GOP win of just one additional seat would see control of that chamber return to the Republicans.
Energy also will be a big factor next year. Which brings us to this telling anecdote that Politico reported this week: “A top GOP polling firm heard from more potential congressional recruits interested in running for Democratic-held seats last week than it had during the first 10 months of the year.”