The Sweep: Explaining the Biden Slump

Presidential approval is a huge factor in midterm results, but it's too early for Democrats to panic yet.

Campaign Quick Hits

Do Voting Laws Matter? Maybe Not: New academic research suggests that all this talk about laws that will result in voter suppression or increase turnout may be, well, academic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Niesse writes that “Academic research shows that voter ID laws have little to no effect on turnout” and that “one nationwide study found that expansions of absentee voting in some states in last year’s election didn’t alter turnout.” Taken together, these studies show that “almost all voters who want to vote will find a way to cast their ballots despite tougher ID requirements, limits on ballot drop boxes and a shorter early voting period before runoffs.” And, of course, if there’s no effect on turnout that also means there’s no discernible amount of fraud being prevented either.

Independents Not Coming Back to Biden: Everyone else has been harping on the same numbers, but how could I leave it out of a campaign newsletter? Hillary Clinton lost independents by 4 points in 2016. Joe Biden won them by 13 points in 2020. In June and July, Biden was still up 3 points with them. And then August happened … and then September, and now October. And now Biden’s 16 points underwater with independents. The sitting president’s approval rating is a big part of the very heavy stone that makes up the curling analogy for this newsletter—campaigns can only do so much in the face of the political environment into which they are born. And while there’s plenty of time left before 2022, keep an eye on the tightening Governor’s race in Virginia. Plus, Chris has plenty more below!

A Guide to the Governors’ Races: If you’re reading this in the United States, it’s likely that you will have the opportunity to vote for a governor next year, along with 35 of your sister states. Politico’s Zach Montellaro has broken down all the races.

  • Democrats’ biggest pick up opportunity: Maryland. 

  • Republicans biggest pick up opportunity: Kansas. 

  • Open seat with the biggest fight: Arizona. 

Voter Registration Check In: If voter turnout is the cake every campaign is trying to bake, voter registration is the flour—necessary if not sufficient. Democrats have long held a party registration advantage over Republicans—and still do—but in some of the most important states, Democrats are losing altitude, according to The Hill

  • Pennsylvania: “Democrats now lead Republicans in voter registration by about 632,000 people, down from 813,885 two years ago.”

  • North Carolina: “Democrats’ advantage has shrunk by more than 140,000 since October 2019.”

  • Florida: Democrats’ advantage over Republicans “has shrunk by more than 200,000 over the past two years.”

In Shor We Trust: Ezra Klein has a great profile of Democratic data guru David Shor that is worth the click. There are so many nuggets worth diving into but here are just a few to whet your appetite. 

  • The dramatic decline of ticket-splitting is disproportionately hurting Senate Democrats: “As recently as 2008, the correlation between how a state voted for president and how it voted in Senate elections was about 71 percent. Close, but plenty of room for candidates to outperform their party. In 2020, it was 95.6 percent.”

  • Democrats may be at their high water mark: In 2022, Shor believes Democrats have a 50-50 shot at holding the Senate majority (I personally put it quite a bit higher than that). But if 2022 is a good map for Democrats and they still may not hold the Senate, 2024 is a disaster. “If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, Shor’s model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now.” Seven! 

  • The wokesters are pushing out the traditional base: According to Shor, the math is simple. “If you look inside the Democratic Party, there are three times more moderate or conservative nonwhite people than very liberal white people, but very liberal white people are infinitely more represented,” he says, “That’s morally bad, but it also means eventually they’ll leave.” 

  • Bad political slogans have bigger consequences: Schor points to Latino voters who moved to Trump in 2020 in the wake of the ‘defund the police’ slogan. As Shor tells it, the issue pushed voters to recalculate their voting behavior. “We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.” 

Cheesehead Chess: If you’re looking to do a deep dive into some state that best exemplifies our current politics, it is surely this Washington Post write up on Wisconsin by the one and only Dan Balz. As Dan puts it, “Wisconsin [is] not a purple state, as many people suggest, but two states in one — the first comprising a few heavily populated blue enclaves and the second a red sea of rural, small-town and suburban geography that surrounds those blue pockets.” Indeed.


Now here’s Chris to do a little soothsaying about why Biden’s approval numbers have been slumping lately.

The “Who” and “Why” of Biden’s Malaise 

The world of political jibber-jabber is frothy with talk about the dire poll numbers for President Biden. “Alarming,” says Politico. “Doomed,” says Real Clear Politics. “Brutal,” said CNN. And with good cause. Biden’s numbers are stinkeroo for sure. The current FiveThirtyEight average puts Biden 4.6 points underwater: 49.2 percent disapprove, 44.6 approve.

It’s not as bad as Biden’s predecessor at this point in his term; Donald Trump was 18 points underwater in the same average at this point in 2017. But given that Biden was 10 points on the plus side three months ago, it’s reasonable cause for alarm among Democrats. Unlike Trump, who was underwater less than a month into his term, Biden had been steadily popular until late July.

There’s a strong correlation between presidential job approval and midterm election performance. Biden can certainly attest to that, having watched then-President Obama take a similar job-approval rating into the 2010 midterms and get absolutely shellacked. Biden didn’t have any coattails in 2020, so there are fewer easy targets for Republicans this time around. But Republicans only need five House seats to take control of the lower chamber. Margins matter in defeat, too. If Republicans gain two dozen or more seats, mostly adding moderates from swing districts, it would make it easier for GOP leadership to control their right-wing wackadoodles. Left-wing wackadoodles, meanwhile, would be stronger in a substantially reduced Democratic conference. 

Democrats are long shots at this point to hold the House, but Biden and other party leaders would much rather have Kevin McCarthy as a foil if he is doing do-si-dos for Jim Jordan and the House Freedom Caucus. A win would be better than a loss for Democrats, but a small loss would be better than a big one.

That’s a long way of saying that the frothiness about Biden’s saggy numbers is not unwarranted, but should come with a little perspective. First, it’s very early. There is still time for at least two full cycles of Biden “the comeback kid” and Democrats “doomed” in the next twelve months. Republicans ought to be concerned that the malaise has come too soon and that Biden can recover. 

But the most important questions to ask about Biden’s six weeks swimming underwater are: Who and why?

First, who are the voters dunking the president? This survey from Pew Research captured the shank of Biden’s decline, from June to September. The groups with the sharpest downturns driving the 11-point overall decline: Women, black voters, voters under 30, voters who didn’t attend college, and weak Democrats. That last group is especially scary for Biden. The “lean Democratic” category are the ones he has to worry about staying home, and their estimate of his performance dropped by 21 points in two months.

Or consider the most recent Quinnipiac University poll that put Biden at a seasick 38 percent job approval rating—the one that drove some of the “alarming” kind of coverage. It showed a 4-point overall decline from September’s survey. While Biden did lose two points with independents, it was Democrats really driving him down—a decline of 8 points in a month.  The same outfit had Biden at 93 percent approval among Democrats in August. Biden lost 12 points with independents and 13 points with Democrats in two months. These are those “lean Democratic” voters Pew was talking about. While Biden can thank weakly affiliated Republicans and right-leaning independents in the suburbs for his 2020 victory, they’re not the ones driving his current doldrums. Self-identified Republicans were already at 6 percent approval for Biden back in April. Their slide to 4 percent in the current poll is no big whoop. 

The second key question: Why are these Democrats and independents unhappy with Biden? If we think back to the Pew list of groups again. Women, minorities, voters with high school diplomas or less. These groups are all overrepresented among the working poor and among service sector workers. We are certainly talking about lots of folks who have struggled the most with the ups and downs of the pandemic economy and the mid-summer resurgence of coronavirus. In the Quinnipiac surveys, Biden lost 12 points with independents on handling of the virus and 8 points on his handling of the economy. 

This all tells us something not a bit surprising: The most lightly attached Democrats and Independents are frustrated with the state of things: high prices, a sluggish recovery, and continued restrictions. Less educated, poorer Republicans and Republican leaners were opposed to Biden from the start. Biden is in the dumps with the working class of the center-left, including a lot of black and Hispanic voters—typically the hardest voters to mobilize for midterms. Trump had his problems with the right-side version in 2018, and certainly Obama felt the pain in 2010.

What that means is Biden needs the virus in retreat and the economy on the rise. Democrats will live or die next fall by public sentiment on those issues.

This is why progressive Democrats holding hostage popular infrastructure spending legislation is such bad news for Biden. If the radical lefties sink the next round of spending in the name of fighting climate change, not only will the free money go away, but Biden will look weak and Democrats will look out of touch. This is also why clickbait Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz who are trying to stoke outrage over vaccine mandates that are quite popular are hurting GOP chances. Biden’s problem isn’t with being left or right. It’s in not being able to deliver on the basics of controlling the virus and boosting the recovery.