Lackluster support from Democrats is one big reason that Pres. Biden’s job approval ratings are the lowest of his presidency. Since April of 2021, Biden’s net job approval rating among Democrats in surveys from Quinnipiac, Marist, Washington Post/ABC and Gallup, has dropped between 15 and 20 points. Last spring and summer, Biden’s approval ratings among Democrats were in the 90-94 percent range. Today, they are in the mid-to-high 70 percent range. In other words, Biden’s grades have slipped from an “A” to a “C” among his own voters. 

So, what’s driving these low ratings? And, can Biden improve on them before the fall midterms?

In late January and earlier this week, I sat (virtually) in two focus groups of Democrats who primarily vote in presidential elections, but are not consistent midterm voters. These are the kinds of voters Democrats need to turn out in 2022.  The January group was majority people of color. The early March group was composed of Democrats who were white. Progressive political organizations sponsored both groups. 

Like so many voters across the political spectrum, these folks were concerned about inflation and crime and the lingering effects of COVID. But, mostly, they were exhausted and anxious. When asked to describe the state of the country, they used words like “disappointed,” “frustrated,” “tired” and “confused.” 

They were happy to be rid of Trump, but they didn’t find much to be excited about under Biden. 

When asked what they liked about Biden, they mentioned things like “bipartisan” and “trying to help our country.” But, overall, said one Democratic woman this week, he’s just “average.” 

“He wants to be the moral center but he’s not compelling or dynamic to energize people” The late January group of Democrats agreed Biden’s intentions are “in the right place.” Still, for a range of reasons, they felt that he’s not able to get stuff done. 

Many were also deeply discouraged by the lack of progress on issues that are important to them. “Things aren’t changing for the better the way they could be,” said one of the participants this week. “There’s too much talk and false hope,” said one man in the late January group. “No one is really doing anything.” 

While they gave Biden credit for getting the infrastructure bill into law, they were frustrated that Republicans refused to cooperate. “That bill was universally seen as the greatest thing to happen to infrastructure in history,” said one man in this week’s group of Democratic voters, “But, even getting to it was like pulling teeth. Republicans still voted no.” Others in the group pointed to the hypocrisy of GOP lawmakers who voted against the bill but happily promoted its benefits to their constituents. 

But, even as this behavior frustrated the Democrats in the group, it didn’t make them more committed to showing up to vote this fall. When asked by the moderator if the GOP obstruction made them feel discouraged, or if it instead inspired them to go out and “beat those Republicans” in the election, most chose discouraged. In other words, while Trump’s conduct in the White House was a major factor in getting them to the polls in 2020, GOP behavior in 2022 isn’t providing that same level of interest or intensity.

Furthermore, many of these Democratic focus group participants see Republicans in Congress not as Trump-wannabes, but as opportunistic politicians who are trying to appease the former president.

“Most Republicans are too afraid of Trump to condone January 6th.,” said one focus group participant. “They don’t want to get on Trump’s bad side. “

Another participant offered that “these Republicans all know that it [the election] was legitimate, they are doing it [alleging voter fraud] to get on Trump’s good side.” 

Behind closed doors, said many in this group, most Republican members of Congress aren’t really Trump supporters. 

In other words, Trump may have been a great GOTV tool for Democrats in 2020. But, trying to make each and every GOP candidate into Trump is going to be a challenge for Democratic candidates to pull off.

Then there’s the fact that many Democrats have tuned out of politics since 2020. “To be honest,” said one focus group participant in the late January group, “I’ve taken a break from listening to politics.” A recent Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found similar sentiment among other Democratic voters. 

“Interest in national news is down among Americans of all political affiliations,” the survey found, “but the decline is most pronounced among Democrats. Thirty-four percent reported paying a great deal of attention to national news in 2021, compared to 69% paying a great deal of attention in 2020 — a 35-point drop. Among Republicans, there was a slight shift to 40% — down from 45% in November of 2020.” 

Many Democrats, exhausted from obsessively hate-watching the news and doom scrolling their social media feeds during the Trump era, took a break from this behavior after Biden won. But, the fact that they remain off-line suggests that Democrats haven’t convinced them that what they are doing in Washington matters enough to re-focus on following the news. 

This is the central challenge for Biden in improving his standing with his own voters. Trump helped inspire many new voters to go to the polls and support Democrats in 2018 and 2020. But, even though Trump’s gone, many of those who voted for Biden don’t believe that the political environment has gotten much better. They see a country that remains divided, polarized and angry. On top of it all, one Democrat from the late January group put it, “the person I voted for isn’t doing the things he said he would do.”

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