Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): President Biden’s approval ratings are underwater — 49.2 percent disapprove of the job he is doing as president while 44.6 percent approve, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker.
This has been true for a while now, too. Since Aug. 30, more Americans have disapproved of Biden than have approved of him.
So, let’s tackle Biden’s declining approval rating in three parts. First, what do we know about why his approval rating has dipped? Second, how should we think about this current dip? That is, is it unusually large or actually pretty normal? And, finally, how much do presidents’ approval ratings matter, especially at this point in their presidency?
OK, first up, why has Biden’s approval rating dipped?
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): Given the timing, the two biggest things that have contributed to this decline appear to be Biden’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — specifically, how the situation has gotten worse due to the delta variant — and his administration’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
I’d assume, though, that COVID-19 is likely to have a bigger impact on Biden in the long term because Afghanistan has largely faded from the news …
… and the pandemic affects so much more, including the economy — and Biden’s ratings on the economy were never super-high to begin with. The delta variant itself, including its impact on people’s quality of life and on the economy — coupled with fears of inflation — has hurt Biden’s standing.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Yeah, Alex, it’s clearly a range of factors. Biden’s approval rating was already slipping before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, for instance, as the chart above shows.
I agree that the rise of the delta variant has likely played the biggest role, though. America went from feeling like the pandemic was behind it in early summer to experiencing the second-highest caseload of the pandemic by September. And Biden’s approval and disapproval ratings on the coronavirus dipped from 62 percent and 33 percent, respectively, on July 1 to 49.6 percent and 42.0 percent today.
That said, I can’t shake the feeling that, if it hadn’t been for the delta variant or the coronavirus, something else would have caused a decline in Biden’s ratings. Presidents’ approval ratings tend to dip in the summer of their first year as the honeymoon period wears off and people start to notice the problems that are still around them.
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Right, it’s possible that the situation in Afghanistan served as an inflection point. People who were already beginning to sour on Biden went ahead and said, “OK, that’s it.”
nrakich: Yeah, I agree with that, Geoffrey. The decline in his approval rating really accelerated after the fall of Kabul. My theory is that, for the first six months of Biden’s term, many Americans were enjoying the sense of calm that had fallen over the government after four tumultuous years under former President Donald Trump — and approved of Biden because, to them, he represented a more competent leader. But Afghanistan, and also the delta variant, shattered that calm and raised questions about whether Biden really was that competent after all.
sarah: There was also evidence that, prior to the delta variant’s peak, Biden’s approval rating had already been dipping among independents, so it certainly seems as if there’s no one answer for why Biden’s numbers have dropped.
How big a deal is this slump, though? For over a month now, more Americans have disapproved of Biden than have approved of him. Is that unusual at this point in a president’s term?
nrakich: Looking at the past several decades, it’s unusual. Only two other presidents since 1945 have had net negative approval ratings at this point in their terms: Gerald Ford (-9.1 points) and Trump (-18.2 points), and only one other president was below water at any point in his first 265 days (Bill Clinton).
That said, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Biden to match the average approval rating of presidents at this point in their terms, which is 61 percent. American politics is more polarized now than at any other point in the past 80 years, so recent presidents have tended to have approval ratings closer to 50-50 at this point. In that sense, Biden should be graded on somewhat of a curve — but even then, he’s still doing worse than former President Barack Obama (+12.1 points) on Oct. 11, 2009.
alex: Yeah, everyone expected Biden’s approval rating to drop at some point because every president except for Trump has benefited from a honeymoon period of above-average approval ratings when they first assumed the presidency. Those honeymoon periods invariably end.
But certain things like the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration and Afghanistan probably accelerated the disapproval numbers we’re seeing now.
geoffrey.skelley: For what it’s worth, though, Biden also started out at a lower number to begin with, undoubtedly in part because of how polarized our political environment is, as Nathaniel said. Biden has had an approval rating above 90 percent among Democrats, but his approval among Republicans has been, at best, around 20 percent in some polls, and more like 10 percent in others.
That polarization obviously also contributed to Trump’s circumstances. And because of it, some of the comparisons to presidents further back in time are harder to make. Nowadays, many Americans no longer tend to give a new president from the other party some early benefit of the doubt. For instance, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower both started their presidencies with approval ratings around 70 percent or higher. That’s not happening again anytime soon.
nrakich: Right, I think the days of a president getting a 70 percent approval rating right out of the gate are clearly over. But we saw early on that Biden still had very low disapproval ratings — as low as 34 percent at one point. So, I think some people — specifically, Trump voters — were giving Biden the benefit of the doubt. But they eventually returned to their partisan corners. You can see how Biden’s disapproval rating has inched up for basically his whole term, though the rate of increase accelerated in August.
sarah: On that note, we’ve found that presidents’ approval ratings tend to revert to the mean, and at least since Obama, these ratings have been pretty steady, moving within a fairly narrow band. Can the same be said of Biden at this point? Or is it a big deal that his approval rating has dipped by as much as it has for as long as it has?
alex: It’s definitely something his administration (and all Democrats) will have to account for, especially as we get closer to next year’s midterm elections. I’d imagine that most Democrats seeking office right now are wondering this: “How do I engage my base without having an obvious bogeyman (Trump) to point to or a popular standard-bearer (Biden) to hitch my star to?” And what legislative victories will they be able to point to next year?
And this probably puts more pressure on the Biden administration to figure things out with the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. I’m skeptical that passing either bill will significantly change Democrats’ overall midterm outlook, but doing so could shore up some enthusiasm among his base — which Biden could certainly use right now.
geoffrey.skelley: Biden’s approval has actually been pretty steady compared with that of past presidents in their early days. If you look at the middle-50 percent range of daily average approval ratings in FiveThirtyEight’s approval data for presidents in their first nine or so months, Biden and Trump have seen the least variation of any of them, with less than a 4 percentage point difference between the high and low ends of that middle-50 percent. More broadly, Biden’s approval rating has dropped as low as 44 percent, but even then, the range between his highest and lowest marks is only 11 points — the same went for Trump — while Obama and Clinton had differences of 17 and 24 points, respectively. (George W. Bush’s approval skyrocketed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, making him a less useful comparison.)
sarah: Do we have a sense of how strong some of this opposition to Biden now is? The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter had written earlier in September that not only was Biden struggling with more Americans disapproving of the job he was doing as president, but more Americans were strongly disapproving of it. Is this still the case? What does that mean if some of the opposition is so baked in?
nrakich: Yes. Just as with Trump, the vast majority of those who dislike Biden do so with a passion. In an average of polls conducted entirely in October so far, 42 percent of respondents strongly disapproved of his job performance, while only 10 percent somewhat disapproved. And his strong disapproval numbers are on the rise. Back in May, his average strong disapproval rating was only 32 percent, while his average somewhat disapproval rating was still 10 percent.
(Of course, it’s probably that some people went from approving of Biden to somewhat disapproving of him, and others went from somewhat disapproving of him to strongly disapproving of him. But regardless, it’s not a good trend for him.)
sarah: Of the possible reasons Biden’s approval rating has slumped, you all seem to agree that his handling of the pandemic might be his biggest liability. Does that mean if the pandemic turns a corner in the U.S. — as it’s showing signs of doing — that we should expect Biden’s numbers to bounce back?
nrakich: I think probably? It seems likely that, in the best-case scenario where the pandemic goes away completely, everyone would be extremely happy, and happy people tend to like their presidents.
alex: I think so too. At least among some constituencies. But I’m not sure that’ll happen, namely because we’re seeing some of the highest vaccine-hesitancy rates in Republican-led states, and it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who have been the most skeptical of vaccines and mask-wearing. I’m not quite sure what Biden can do to combat that — it may not be something within his power to change.
I wouldn’t expect an improving COVID-19 picture to solve all Biden’s problems either, as the pandemic isn’t the only thing tanking his approval now.
geoffrey.skelley: If the public thinks things are going better, then sure, there’ll be some uptick. I wouldn’t expect many Republicans to approve of Biden, but it could cause his numbers among independents and Democrats to go back up some.
nrakich: Nate Cohn at The New York Times found that much of the dip in Biden’s approval has been driven by historically Democratic voting blocs. Those groups might come back to the fold if happy times get here again.
alex: Yeah, Nathaniel, some research also suggests that Biden’s standing among Black voters isn’t too great right now. The Washington Post dove into this more, but essentially, a Black man in Georgia who worked to help elect Biden in 2020 argued that the president’s lack of progress on police reform, a $15 minimum wage and voting-rights legislation might make it harder for him to appeal to Black voters in future elections.
Obviously, Black voters are a key Democratic constituency, so this could have huge ramifications for Biden. A Morning Consult poll from September also seemed to show that some Black voters were turned off by Biden’s vaccine mandate. Per the survey, Biden’s net approval rating dropped 12 points among Black voters. Among unvaccinated Black voters, there was a 17-point drop.
sarah: It’ll be interesting to see how long attrition among Democrats lasts given how polarized our politics are. But one reason we cover president’s approval ratings so extensively is that they can be useful for understanding a president’s reelection chances or how his party might fare in the midterms.
What does Biden’s approval rating tell us at this point? And what will you be watching moving forward?
alex: It’s probably too early to draw any big conclusions from Biden’s approval numbers now. But past elections indicate that the severity of midterm losses loosely correlates with the popularity of the president. Here’s a chart FiveThirtyEight published in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, when Trump was unpopular and Republicans went on to lose the House:
To simplify things a bit, Gallup found back in 2010 that when postwar presidents had an approval rating of 50 percent or more around the time of a midterm election, their party lost an average of only 14 seats in the House. But if a president’s approval rating was any lower than 50 percent, the average loss was 36 seats. Using more recent data, from 1970 to 2014, Bloomberg put the average loss at 33 seats for presidents with approval ratings below 50 percent.
Fifty percent isn’t some magic inflection point. But, all else being equal, the more popular Biden is come election time in 2022, the better congressional Democrats’ prospects will be.
I think there’s still time for Biden’s approval ratings to recover, but (i) whether that happens and (ii) by how much will have a big impact on how his party fares in both 2022 and 2024. I’ll be watching Biden’s approval among voters of color specifically, though, and whether Republicans use that to try to build on their gains with Black and Hispanic voters in 2020.
nrakich: Yeah, if Biden has the same approval rating in November 2022 as he does now, Democrats will clearly be toast in the midterms. But there is ample time for it to either get better or get worse before then, so I don’t think the numbers mean much for now.
That said, Democrats shouldn’t feel like they just have to get Biden’s approval rating back above 50 percent to avoid midterm losses. The president’s party loses seats in all but the most popular presidencies. The only recent presidents who gained House seats in a midterm election, Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002, had approval ratings in the 60s.
So, basically, I think Republicans will gain seats in 2022, but I think it’s too early to tell how many.
geoffrey.skelley: To Nathaniel’s point, it’s nearly impossible to imagine circumstances where Biden’s approval will top 60 percent in this polarized political environment. Perhaps the target figure should be more like 55 percent now because the band of possibilities for presidential approval has narrowed.
Still, it will be challenging for Biden to even get back there to help Democrats hold or even gain ground. Of course, this is mostly about the House, which is a truly national election with all 435 seats up. But the Senate is harder to nail down in some ways because only about one-third of it is up in 2022, so the national political environment doesn’t have as much of a 1:1 effect on outcomes there. Take 2018, for example: Trump was way underwater and Republicans lost the House, but they actually gained ground in the Senate because Democrats had to defend a sizable number of seats in red states.
Put another way, the relationship between presidential approval and seat loss for the president’s party is not as highly correlated in the Senate as it is in the House.