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Why Democrats In Congress Need Biden’s Approval Rating To Stay Where It Is

A majority of Americans, about 55 percent, approve of President Biden’s job performance so far, whereas about 39 percent disapprove. Those are pretty good numbers for a president in this polarized era. And for Democrats to keep control of the U.S. House and Senate next November, Biden will probably need to keep his approval ratings in this vicinity. That’s unlikely, but possible, because of some broader shifts happening in American politics. 

Why should we focus on presidential approval ratings when we are thinking about next year’s midterms? For two reasons. First of all, we don’t yet have a lot of other data to rely on. In most House and Senate races, it’s not even clear who the (non-incumbent) candidates will be. Most pollsters aren’t yet asking respondents the so-called generic ballot question — “If the next election were being held today, would you vote for the Democratic or the Republican candidate?” And while generic ballot polling has historically provided a reliably rough preview of eventual midterm results, “rough” is the key word here. FiveThirtyEight’s average of pre-2020 generic ballot polls suggested that Democrats would have a sizable advantage in last year’s House races (a popular vote margin of around +7 percentage points, about 50 to 43), but the final results were more narrow (about +3 points, 51 to 48).

Second and more importantly, presidential approval ratings in recent years have been a decent indicator of what will happen in the midterms. In the last four (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018), the incumbent president’s disapproval rating was higher than his approval, and in all four cases, the president’s party lost a sizable bloc of House seats. (The Senate results aren’t quite as tied to presidential approval.) The last time the president’s party gained House seats in a midterm election was in 2002, when George W. Bush had sky-high ratings in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. So, when we talk about the pattern that the president’s party nearly always loses congressional seats in the midterms, part of what seems to be happening is that the American electorate becomes somewhat disillusioned with a president after electing or reelecting him (or wants to check his power) and then backs the opposite party’s congressional candidates. 

Low presidential approval tends to spell midterm trouble

Relationship between presidential approval ratings and results for the president’s party in House midterm elections

Pre-election House Midterm Results
Year President Approval Disapproval Pres. party voteshare Out-party voteshare Pres. party Seat Change
1994 Clinton 47% 44% 45% 52% -52
1998 Clinton 65 31 47 48 +5
2002 Bush 62 28 50 45 +8
2006 Bush 37 57 44 52 -30
2010 Obama 45 49 45 51 -63
2014 Obama 42 52 45 51 -13
2018 Trump 42 53 45 53 -40

Presidential approval and disapproval ratings come from FiveThirtyEight’s approval ratings tracker for the day before the midterm election for each year cited.

Sources: Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives; The American Presidency Project

And presidential approval ratings are becoming even more predictive as American politics are increasingly partisan and president-centered. The Obama and Trump presidencies suggest that the overwhelming majority of voters lean toward either the Democrats or the Republicans and approve of presidents from their own party and disapprove of presidents from the opposite party. 

And those mostly partisan approval numbers translate to mostly partisan voting: More and more, voters cast ballots for candidates from the same party in both presidential and congressional elections. So, in November 2018, then-President Trump had a 42 percent approval rating, compared with a 53 percent disapproval rating. Democrats won about 53 percent of the national U.S. House vote, overwhelmingly from people who disapproved of Trump. Republicans slightly outpaced Trump’s approval and won 45 percent of the House vote, mostly from people who approved of the president.

On Election Day in 2020, 45 percent of Americans approved of Trump, compared with 53 percent who disapproved. Biden won about 51 percent of the popular vote, as did House Democrats (so just slightly below Trump’s disapproval). Trump won nearly 47 percent, similar to House Republicans (48 percent) and again just slightly above his approval rating. So, in both 2018 and 2020, presidential approval/disapproval tracked closely with the House popular vote. And because congressional and presidential voting are now both so tied to partisanship, we have a record-low number of House districts — 16 — where the member isn’t from the same party that the district backed for president.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the close link between presidential approval ratings and House results will continue. Perhaps Trump made American politics particularly centered around him, so some voters in next year’s elections will approve of Biden’s job performance but still back GOP congressional candidates. One big danger for Democrats in the 2022 midterms is the potential of differential turnout — Republicans voting at higher levels than Democrats, with conservative voters more motivated to vote against congressional Democrats aligned with Biden than liberals are to essentially maintain the status quo. This happened in 2018, when people who had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 voted at slightly higher rates than those who had backed Trump in 2016. So it’s possible that Biden’s approval rating is 55 percent among American adults on election day 2022 but is several percentage points lower among people who actually vote.

And even if presidential approval ratings remain closely linked to the overall House vote and Biden maintains a rating in the mid-50s, that doesn’t guarantee Democrats will win the House. We’ve had a few elections in a row now where polls, on balance, slightly overstated support for Democratic candidates and politicians and understated support for GOP ones. That doesn’t mean the same thing will happen again in the midterms, but it’s easy to imagine the eventual electorate in 2022 will be a little more Republican-leaning than Biden’s approval rating suggests. And Democrats have very little margin for error. Republicans have a built-in head start in House races right now — not only because of GOP gerrymandering but because Democratic-leaning voters disproportionately live in urban areas while Republicans are more spread out into exurban, suburban and rural districts. So a 50-50 popular vote margin would almost certainly give the GOP control of the House. 

Moreover, Republicans have much more control over the redistricting process than Democrats, so they could draw lines even more favorable to them before next year’s elections. Republicans in many states are also trying to limit the ability of liberal-leaning Americans to vote or have their votes counted. So it’s possible that even, say, a 52 percent to 47 percent Democratic advantage in the aggregate popular vote in House races would translate to a Republican-controlled House. 

Put simply: If Biden could maintain an approval rating in the mid-50s, it would be a huge help to Democrats — in particular, House candidates in swing districts and Democratic Senate candidates in competitive states such as Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And if Biden could push his approval rating into the high 50s, it’s hard to imagine Democrats losing the House or the Senate. 

How likely is it for Biden to maintain or improve his current approval? 

It’s hard to say. History would suggest that Biden is likely to be less popular in November 2022 than he is today, but we’re not sure how much of that history applies. 

The pre-Trump pattern in presidential approval had typically been that a new president entered office with relatively high ratings (at or above 55 percent) and then those numbers gradually declined during his first two years. But that pattern may be over. Trump never had much of a honeymoon: He began at around 46 percent approval, and his ratings remained fairly stable throughout his presidency. Biden started off at around 53 percent — higher than his immediate predecessor but not as high as other recent presidents. (Another interesting point: Biden’s approval rating is nearly the inverse of his predecessor’s: Trump’s approval was mostly in the low 40s, and his disapproval was mostly in the mid-50s; Biden’s approval is in the mid-50s, and his disapproval in the high 30s.)

It’s plausible that no matter what Biden does, his approval ratings will dip in the run-up to the midterms, as pre-Trump presidents’ did, because voters tend to sour some on the incumbent. Alternatively, it’s plausible that we are in a new normal of American politics, with a large GOP bloc, a slightly larger Democratic bloc that includes the majority of Americans and voters who are really locked into their party, so nothing really shifts those fundamental dynamics. That would explain why Biden’s approval rating is basically the same as Trump’s disapproval rating was, and why Biden’s disapproval is so close to Trump’s approval.

And finally, it’s plausible that what actually happens in Biden’s presidency day-to-day matters. The president and his team are trying to implement a strategy that they think will keep his popularity up: improve the economy and deal with COVID-19 effectively, sell those successes to American voters and tone down the partisan divide in Washington. Republicans have a strategy too: keep up partisan tensions in Washington; attack Biden on policy matters like immigration, where he is unlikely to have clear successes; and highlight issues that are likely to divide voters based on competing racial and cultural attitudes, such as the controversy over the discontinuation of some Dr. Seuss books because of racist imagery.

“Of course real-life events will affect Biden’s approval ratings,” you might say. Sure, but that’s been true only marginally of late. Economic conditions are less correlated to presidential approval than in the past. And, as I noted earlier, none of the incredible things that happened in Trump’s presidency (the Mueller report, Trump’s 2019 impeachment, the COVID-19 outbreak) shifted his approval ratings much until the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which did cause a notable dip.

So watch Biden’s approval rating closely. It’s likely to be an indication of how well Democrats will do in next year’s elections. But it’s also likely to be an indication of how American politics today work more broadly. Is America locked in an intractable partisan uncivil war, where Team Blue represents a slight but clear majority and every election is super-close? Or maybe neither Team Blue nor Team Red has a majority and instead both are at about 45 percent, with a fairly large and meaningful bloc of people who either swing between the parties (often against the president’s party) or don’t vote at all during midterm elections (mostly from the president’s party)? Or can the president and his actions meaningfully shift the political dynamics and create a 55-45 or 57-43 electorate if he is viewed as effective, or alternatively, a 43-57 electorate if he is viewed as particularly ineffective? We shall see over the next 19-plus months.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.