The article was originally published for the National Journal on February 22, 2022.
As the situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border intensifies, I wonder how many people like me are checking the news several times an hour, wondering whether Russia has finally attacked its smaller neighbor.
Of course, no one can know where this is headed, how long it will dominate the news, what role the U.S. and its NATO allies will play, or what sanctions will be levied on Russia.
We know what kind of shape President Biden and his party were in going into this crisis (pretty bad); we just can’t know how either will look coming out the other end.
In the last several months, Biden’s job-approval numbers have mostly stabilized, largely fluctuating between 40 and 44 percent in the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight poll averages. The Gallup Organization released its monthly polling covering the first half of February, putting Biden’s approval rating at 41 percent, a point above his 40 percent in January. That’s 2 points better than Donald Trump’s 39 percent at this point, but 9 points below Barack Obama’s 50 percent and 12 points below Bill Clinton’s. In the final Gallup poll before their first midterm elections, Trump had a 43 percent approval rating (resulting in a net loss of 40 House seats), Obama was at 45 percent approval (losing 52 seats), and Clinton at 46 percent (losing 64 seats). We can put George W. Bush’s numbers to the side, given their stratospheric increase after 9/11. But his stood at 62 percent at this stage and 63 percent going into the 2002 midterms, en route to Republicans gaining eight seats in the House.
Biden’s 41 percent overall approval rating in Gallup was bracketed by a 47 percent approval on handling the coronavirus, 36 percent on handling “the situation with Russia,” 37 percent on the economy, and 40 percent for foreign policy.
Given how monolithic partisans are in their approval ratings and actual voting, it is always useful to look only at independents, the ‘jump ball’ Americans. Biden’s overall rating among them was 35 percent (5 points below his approval among all adults). His best marks were on dealing with the coronavirus (45 percent approval), followed by foreign policy (37 percent), Russia (35 percent), and the economy (30 percent). It is pretty clear the president and his administration’s denial of the threat of inflation and slow reaction to it was exceedingly damaging to him. (While we are on the subject, it is fascinating to see Senate Democrats, after so passionately advocating for more infrastructure spending this past year, propose suspending the gasoline tax for the rest of the year, no matter that the gas tax is the primary regular funding source for transportation infrastructure. Panic is never pretty.)
While we don’t know the trajectory that the Russia/Ukraine crisis will take, and there are many factors that can impact on midterm elections, we do know that in the absence of a large number of U.S. military deaths, Americans rarely vote on foreign-policy issues, particularly in midterms. The state and direction of the economy, particularly change in real disposable personal income, is far more determinative.
Turnout and the relative levels of enthusiasm between the two parties’ bases is key. There was a big gap heading into the 2018 midterm elections with, as usual, the party out of power much more motivated going into the fall of that year—though the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination did a lot to close the gap in predominantly rural areas, which helped Republicans actually score a net gain in the Senate while getting hosed (a political science term) in the House. Right now, Democrats are the party suffering from a lack of motivation among their base.
If someone wanting a read on a midterm is only going to watch two things, it should be a president’s approval rating and the generic congressional ballot test, both pretty good barometers of which way the wind is blowing and whether it’s light, moderate, or heavy.
In my view, Biden and his team are handling this incredibly challenging crisis far better than many other things over the last year. But this is unlikely to save Democrats from what is increasingly looking to be a pretty horrible midterm election.
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