Most of us see President Joe Biden’s falling job approval rating as a measure of his declining popularity. But for every candidate, Democrat or Republican, running for the House or Senate this year, Biden’s numbers mean political life or death. That is because the president’s job approval rating is an extraordinarily important factor in the upcoming midterm elections.
Biden’s is low and going lower. A recent Pew poll puts Biden at 41% approval, versus 56% disapproval. Those results are very close to the RealClearPolitics average of several polls, which has Biden at 41.4% approval and 54.7% disapproval.
If those results continue, they will be felt in November.
“In our increasingly polarized and nationalized politics, the single most determinative factor in midterm outcomes is the president’s job approval,” writes RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende. “With both the House and Senate very narrowly split between the two parties, entering the 2022 elections with a president whose job approval is at this level carries catastrophic implications for the Democrats.”
Biden’s situation is particularly worrisome for Democrats because, historically, a sitting president’s party usually loses seats in his first midterm election. But the president’s job approval has a huge effect on how big that loss will be.
The Gallup organization has looked at midterm results going back to 1946. In elections where the president’s job approval rating was above 50%, Gallup said in a 2018 article, his party’s midterm losses in the House averaged 14 seats.
But in elections where the president’s job approval rating was below 50%, the losses averaged 37 seats.
In 1994, Bill Clinton’s job approval rating just before the midterms stood at 46% in the Gallup poll. His party lost 53 seats in the House. In 2010, Barack Obama’s job approval rating was 45%. His party lost 63 seats. And in 2018, Donald Trump’s job approval rating was 40%. His party lost 41 seats.
Now remember that the current balance of power in the House is 222 Democrats and 212 Republicans, with one vacancy.
If Democrats lose six seats, and the GOP picks up six, Republicans will control the House. Republicans could significantly underperform the historical average of nonpresidential parties in midterm elections – and still win the House.
For Senate races, Trende developed a model taking into account a president’s job approval rating, the presence or absence of an incumbent on the ticket, and whether one party had chosen an unusually weak candidate, like Republicans did in 2010. Now Trende notes that Republicans winning control of the Senate would be possible if Biden’s job approval rating were around 51%.
If Biden’s rating were 48%, a GOP victory would become likely.
And now? “At 42%, the model envisions virtually no chance for Democrats to hold the Senate and predicts a loss of four seats as the most likely outcome,” Trende writes.
But what about the unexpected? A sensible note of caution demands that one recognize the role that unforeseen events can play in determining our politics. In late 2019, as Donald Trump was being impeached, you probably would not have guessed that a worldwide pandemic would dominate U.S. politics in the coming year. So unexpected things happen.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to significantly change a president’s trendline in a midterm year. “Looking back more than 70 years, there hasn’t been a single president who substantially improved his job approval rating from late January/early February of a midterm election year to late October/early November,” writes elections analyst Nathan Gonzales.
In fact, the opposite has usually happened. “In the last 18 midterm elections going back to Harry Truman in 1950, the average president’s job approval rating dropped eight points between this time of year and election day,” Gonzales notes.
Bottom line: Nothing is set in stone. But things are looking bad for Joe Biden and his party.
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