Why Biden’s Low Approval Numbers Might Not Hurt Him in November

President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Pearson Community Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 4, 2024. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s bad news and good news for those who want to see Joe Biden win in 2024 (or who really just want to see Donald Trump lose).

The bad news is that in the era of modern polling, no president has ever won reelection with approval ratings as low at this point in their first term. For fairly obvious reasons, incumbent presidents generally need to get at least close to 50 percent favorability by Election Day to win. Biden’s approval has been stubbornly low—around 40 percent in polling averages—despite an improving economy. Getting to 50 percent looks daunting, though hardly impossible.

The good news is that approval numbers may not matter.

You may have noticed that a lot of the old rules of politics have passed their expiration dates.

It’s important to note that none of them were ever “iron laws” so much as rules of thumb. Still, it’s been a bad time to rely on those rules of thumb. The phrase “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation”—i.e. Ohio always backs the winner—didn’t apply in 2020. The still widespread conviction that politics is all about raising money and that donors have outsize influence to pick the winner hasn’t really been true for quite a while. Just ask Michael Bloomberg or Ron DeSantis. From 1888 to 1996, the Electoral College vote followed the popular vote. In 2000 and again 2016 that didn’t happen.

For decades, winning presidential and congressional candidates followed the rule that you swing to the base in the primaries and then tack back to the center in the general election. Barack Obama largely ignored that rule and Donald Trump really ignored it, successfully. Most senatorial and congressional candidates ignore that rule entirely. That’s because the electorate has sorted to the point where the real challenge to incumbency is in primaries, not general elections. As a result, candidates increasingly rely on turning out their base rather than persuading voters in the middle.

This points to one reason why favorability may not matter as much as it used to. In a polarized electorate, most voters vote against the other party more than they vote for their own. A recent Quinnipiac poll finds that among voters who dislike both candidates, Biden has a commanding 13-point lead. If that holds, it could be all Biden needs.

A second reason why favorability might be unreliable: Trump is essentially running as a Republican incumbent. Normally presidents who lose don’t run again. And they certainly don’t claim they didn’t actually lose.

Favorability is usually predictive because reelection bids are referendums on incumbents’ first terms—more of the same or change. But voters already know what a Trump presidency would be like—or they can be reminded with a barrage of negative ads the likes of which we’ve never seen. Trump left office with an approval rating of 34 percent. This is why Nikki Haley tends to do better than Trump in hypothetical matchups with Biden: She’s a change candidate in a way Trump can’t be.

It’s true that Trump is beating Biden in many hypothetical matchups in battleground states. That should be very worrisome for Democrats. But Trump’s unfavorable ratings are still higher than Biden’s. Indeed, Trump has always had a high floor of support—about 34 percent—but also a very low ceiling, about 48 percent. Unlike Biden, Trump has never actually been popular.

In a general election, when partisans reluctantly “come home,” basically to vote against the other party, Biden probably has a much larger pool of “hold your nose” voters to rely on.

The expiration—or temporary suspension—of other rules is relevant too. Republicans in 2022 were expecting a “red tsunami” given Biden’s unpopularity and the struggling economy. Democrats did shockingly well—because they ran, in effect, against Trump and Trumpism and for abortion rights. Indeed, the old rule that the issue of abortion helps Republicans got turned on its head after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. As recent state initiatives suggest, Biden could be carried by abortion rights voters alone. Biden is already opening a massive gender gap with Trump. Abortion surely explains much of it, though his trial(s) for defaming E. Jean Carrol and paying hush money to a porn-star mistress probably didn’t help. Attacking Taylor Swift, as his most ardent supporters have done recently, won’t fix that.

All of that said, if you believe a second Trump presidency would be a disaster for the country, rerunning a very unpopular incumbent on the hunch that the old rules no longer apply seems like a risky bet.

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