Independents Hold The Key To Any Biden Rebound

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One of the most heavily debated topics in politics is just what, exactly, is the cause behind Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings. It isn’t clear that his approvals should be mired in the low-40s, either, if history is to serve as any indicator; in fact, a recent Gallup poll found that at this point in his presidency, Biden has the second-lowest approval rating of all presidents from 1950 onwards, ahead of only Donald Trump.

An analysis of polls shows that there are two components to this picture. The first (and likely the most important) is that Biden has lost significant ground with independent voters, who approved of him by healthy margins early in his presidency and now disapprove of him in even larger numbers. The second is that the president has lost significant ground with the Democratic base, who are far more likely to disapprove of him now than at any prior point in his presidency.

For the sake of analysis, we can use the polls done by Gallup as a baseline. In January 2021, Gallup found Biden’s approval to be a net +20 with registered voters, with 57 percent approving and 37 percent disapproving. He was at +97 with Democrats (98 approve, 1 disapprove), -74 with Republicans (11-85), and +30 with independents (61-31).

By April 2022, this picture looked very different, as Biden’s approval rating had slid to -15 overall (41-56). The biggest part of this decline can be chalked up to Biden’s approvals plunging with the largest part of the poll’s electorate: Independents, where he went from 30 points above water to 27 points underwater (35-62). The second largest part of this decline is due to his loss of approval with Democrats, where the president went from a +97 rating to an underwhelming +69 (84-15).

This polling trend is mirrored in surveys from Marist and Echelon Insights as well, which point to Biden’s struggles with Democrats and Independents as key to his dismal approval ratings, with the latter being a bit more responsible for the fall than the former. The picture painted by Marist, in fact, puts nearly as much of the blame on his struggles with the Democratic base, with Biden at an alarmingly low +53 among his own party’s voters.

Democrats have recognized Biden’s cratering favorability with his own party’s voters and have blamed it on the administration’s perceived failure to tackle core base issues, pointing to a refusal to outright cancel student debt and the implosion of his signature Build Back Better bill as key factors. In particular, polling suggests that student debt cancellation may result in higher approval among young voters, a demographic with whom Biden has seen the sharpest decline in approval of late. Given the extreme volatility of youth turnout and the degree to which Democrats rely on it, proponents of the idea suggest that addressing it would lead to higher Democratic turnout in key battleground states.

Would these measures help? Possibly. Both Build Back Better and student debt relief are popular on the whole, and considering the high support for these policies among Democrats, it is possible that their enactment would result in a moderate approval boost for Biden. Given the large amount of room that he has to grow with Democratic voters, Biden could see his overall approval surge significantly simply by boosting his base’s views of his presidency. If Democratic voters approved of Biden at the same level Republicans disapproved of him, his approval would be at -2 in Marist and a -9 in Gallup, and while that is still not an ideal position, it is significantly better than the current -15 he is at in both polls.

The underlying problem for Biden, however, is that boosts of this magnitude may be extremely difficult to attain among Democrats in the current economic climate, regardless of legislation passed, given that the economy consistently ranks as the most important issue for voters. When presidents see their overall approval plummet, they also see their standing within their own party take some damage, because the voters . Even Donald Trump was not immune to this — his approval fell to +71 with Republican voters in August of 2018 while his overall approval was mired at -13. And so while it is certainly possible for Biden could see his standing with Democrats improve, it is probably unrealistic to expect that his approvals with them would actually approach the stratospheric levels seen early in his presidency.

Moreover, there is a second piece of the puzzle: independents, who are the largest slice of the electorate and with whom Biden has seen the biggest fall over the last year. In order to approach breakeven in overall approval, the president would likely need to make substantial gains with these voters. The problem, however, is that policy minutiae is not as likely to significantly help in the short term with them, as independents are far less likely to be politically attentive or attuned to the news cycle. For the same reason, messaging on culture-war matters like the January 6th insurrection, as suggested by strategists, is not likely to make as big of a difference either.

Examination of a recent Marquette poll is especially revealing in showing levels of disengagement among independent voters. Independents were nearly twice as likely as partisans were to be unable to name even a single Supreme Court justice. Unsurprisingly, a respondent’s knowledge of Supreme Court justices also correlated sharply to their engagement in politics, suggesting that independents on the whole are not nearly as attentive to partisan politics.

In general, voters do not tend to reward parties for big-ticket legislation, even if the bill itself is popular. Instead, as suggested by Nate Cohn of the New York Times, they generally tend to reward incumbents for good economic conditions. This would be in line with what polling indicates; in Gallup’s 2022 polls, the share of respondents saying the economy is the most important issue has spiked from 22% in January to 35% in March, which would represent the highest levels of importance given to it in the Biden presidency.

Voters are thus more likely to give negative marks to the president if they see the economic climate as unfavorable, and given that inflation recently hit a 40-year high, they appear to be doing exactly that. A recent CNN survey found that only 30 percent of independents thought the economy was good. These numbers were similar to the ones seen in a poll done by ABC News and the Washington Post, which saw only 37 percent of voters approve of Biden’s handling of the economy. Unsurprisingly, given how presidential approval correlates fairly strongly with vote choice, Republicans also held a 14-point advantage with independents in the ABC poll.

The issues that Biden is facing thus appear to be largely rooted in economic discontent among Americans amidst record inflation, and in order for Democrats to avoid a midterm wipeout, Biden would thus need to see sustained improvement with both his base and independent voters. This is not impossible, of course, and as Democratic strategist David Shor suggests, there is nothing inevitable about Biden’s approval ratings being this low, even in the wake of modern polarization. But to see it, Democrats will likely have to hope that an economic turnaround not currently forecasted to happen in 2022 occurs.

I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.