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President Biden and former president Trump don’t have a lot in common. But, they share the inauspicious distinction of having the lowest approval ratings in modern history for a president 500 days into his first term. The fivethirtyeight.com tracker has Biden’s net approval rating at a dismal -13.3, two points lower than Trump’s -11 in June of 2018.
But, the paths they took to these dismal ratings are very different.
Trump began his presidency with little support from independents and some skepticism among his own base. By the 2018 midterm election, Trump had consolidated his base, but remained deeply unpopular with independent voters. Meanwhile, Biden started his tenure with strong support from his partisans and decent approval ratings among independent voters. But, Biden lost altitude with both in the late summer/early fall of last year and has yet to regain that support.
The question now is whether the different routes their subpar approval ratings can tell us anything about the likely outcome of the November midterm.
Biden’s job approval slump took the more traditional route, a gradual decline from ‘honeymoon’ levels to underwater over the course of his first term. Like his predecessors Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Biden ended his first 100 days in office with more voters approving than disapproving the job he’d been doing in office. Even so, his net approval rating of +12 was 10 points lower than that of Clinton’s and almost 20 points lower than Obama’s at similar points in their presidencies. His ‘honeymoon’ was much more abbreviated than theirs; more like a weekend at Niagara Falls than a week in Hawaii.
And, like Clinton and Obama, Biden’s net approval rating continued to decline over the course of the next year. Today, Biden’s net approval rating is -13, a 25 point net negative swing since the end of April. That’s not much different from what we saw in Obama’s numbers. Between late April 2009 and June of 2010, for example, Obama’s net approval rating had dropped 28 points. For Clinton, the drop in net approval was a little less precipitous (-15 points), but a downgrade nonetheless. Unlike Biden, however, Obama and Clinton began at much higher levels of support, which meant that their overall net job approval remained above water. By November, however, both Clinton and Obama were in net-negative territory.
Trump, meanwhile, had a more unique route to his 41 percent job approval rating. Unlike Obama, Clinton or Biden, Trump never spent any time ‘above water’ with voters; he was always rated as more unpopular than popular. By early March, Trump’s net job approval was -6 (44 percent approve to 50 percent disapprove). By June it had slumped down to -16. But, by the end of 2017, Trump’s free-fall had ended. Between January of 2018 and early November, his net job approval rating improved by 6 points (from -17 to -11). Where Clinton and Obama saw their net job approval drop by 20 to 25 points between April/May of their first year in office and November of the midterm year, Trump’s net approval dropped just about a point or two (from -10.7 on day 99 in office to -11 by Election Day 2018).
It’s hard to remember this now, but back in early 2017, there were plenty of GOP voters who remained skeptical of Trump. Some social conservatives were wary that the one-time New York City playboy would follow through on his campaign pledges to appoint conservative justices or back anti-abortion legislation. Some traditional conservatives were worried that his populist inclinations would move the party away from its low regulation/low tax ideology. A chaotic first few months in office, which featured high-profile staff turnover, the firing of FBI director James Comey, and Trump’s controversial reaction to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville, turned off even more GOP-leaning voters. In August of 2017, just 79 percent of Republicans, according to Gallup polling, approved of the job Trump was doing in office. But, by early 2018, with tax cuts in hand, a record number of conservative federal judges appointed, and aggressive and unrelenting attacks by the president on Twitter and at rallies against the ‘fake news’ and ‘liberal media,’ Trump’s approval ratings among his base jumped. By June of 2018, 88 percent of Republicans approved of the job Trump was doing, a nine-point increase from his 2017 summer slump.
However, opinions of Trump among independents started low and remained low throughout Trump’s first two years in office. Gallup polling from the spring of 2017 found Trump’s job approval ratings among independents at an anemic 36 percent. By the summer of 2018 they stayed in that same range (37 percent). By October, just 38 percent of independents approved of the job Trump was doing in office.
In other words, while still unpopular overall, opinions of Trump, had stabilized — and even improved among his base - by the time 2018 rolled around. That wasn’t enough to prevent Republicans from losing 40 seats in the House, but it did limit their exposure. Republicans lost in almost all of the competitive purple and light blue areas, but gains by Democrats in red CDs and states were limited.
Biden, meanwhile, started with a more consolidated base than Trump, but has seen that support wane over the last year. For example, in June of 2021, 95 percent of Democrats approved of the job Biden was doing in office. By May of 2022, that approval rating had dropped down to 82 percent. And, it’s easy to understand why. In early 2021, Democrats were united by their relief that Trump had been ousted and were hopeful for a ‘new era’ in national politics, an era defined by less fighting, more competent government, and a defense of core progressive values. But, more than a year later, the country is as divided as ever. Progressive goals like police reform have failed. And, rising inflation has negatively impacted Americans across the political spectrum. Many Democrats admit that they have literally “checked out” of following politics or the news since Biden’s election in 2020.
Meanwhile, Biden’s support among independents has plunged from a net approval of 14 in May of 2021 (54 percent approve to 40 percent approve), to a net approval of -15 (39 percent approve to 54 percent disapprove).
Another way to look at it is that Trump came into the 2018 midterms in bad shape, but better than where he was in the summer of 2017. Biden, meanwhile, is heading into the summer of this midterm year in much worse shape than he was in during the early summer of 2021, with no sign of improvement. High gas prices, inflation and overall economic anxiety is unlikely to get much better before November, making any improvement in his job approval tough. As such, the bigger question is whether, like Trump, Biden can improve his standing with his own partisans enough to help limit GOP gains in blue-leaning territory this fall.
In many ways, Democrats have an easier path to driving up motivation among their base than Trump did in 2018. A roll-back of federal abortion rights; the events of January 6th; and Trump’s continued attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election are the kinds of things that should ensure solid Democratic turnout in November. But, thus far at least, we haven’t seen signs that these issues are either improving opinions of Biden, or increasing interest among Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. Democratic in-fighting between progressives like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and moderates over the best way forward (leaning into a more expansive progressive agenda versus keeping a focus on kitchen table issues like the rising cost of living), doesn’t help to inspire Democratic interest or support in the upcoming election, either.
In a briefing with reporters this week, Guy Cecil, head of the Democratic SuperPAC, Priorities USA, admitted that “too many Democrats are tuned out of politics,” and that his organization was committing significant resources to “increase and quicken their outreach” to these voters. Other progressive organizations are doing the same.
Many Democratic strategists also contend that they can use these same issues to motivate and turnout voters who aren’t necessarily Democrats, but who were roused to vote in 2018 and/or 2020 by their opposition to Trump.
“There’s no question that persuadable voters are worried about economic security,” Cecil said. “But, we do see issues of January 6th as example of extremist ideology and ongoing extreme behavior [that are] useful in raising the stakes of the election.”
Democrats, he said, need to convince these voters that not only can things “get better with Democrats in power, but things can get worse with Republicans in charge.”
Democrats still have five months to “raise the stakes” in this election by drawing sharp contrasts with their GOP opponents around issues like abortion rights, and attacks on our democratic institutions. But, for many of the voters Democrats are trying to turnout, the rising cost of food, gas and housing are “high stakes” impacting their day to day lives most acutely.