biden

The Honeymoon for First Term Presidents No Longer Exists

AW
April 29, 2021

The contrast in style, substance and behavior between former President Trump and President Biden couldn't be more profound. Donald Trump ran on—and reveled in—division. Joe Biden talked about unity and healing the "soul of the nation." Yet, from his first moments in office through his first "100 days", opinions of Biden are just as, or more polarized, than those of his predecessor. 

Republicans argue that Biden's decision to go it alone on the COVID relief package, his heavy-handed use of the Executive Order pen and his go-big-or-go-home approach to legislative priorities has soured whatever hope GOPers once had for a more inclusive governing style. Yet, polling suggests that opinions of Biden were baked in even before he got settled at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

A Gallup survey conducted January 21-Feb. 2, found Biden's support among his own partisans to be higher than any previous first termer, but approval from the opposite party was also lower than any president in modern history—including Donald Trump. The 98 percent approval from Democrats and 11 percent disapproval from Republicans was the largest partisan gap for a president in his first week on the job than any president in the last 68 years. 



Now, almost three months in, opinions of Biden remain as polarized as they were on day one. Public polling finds Biden's support from Democrats in the 90-95 percent range, while support from Republicans remains an anemic 7-14 percent. In fact, Biden's 'honeymoon' period, the first few months of a new president's tenure, look more like Trump's than like those of their immediate predecessors. For example, George W. Bush and Barack Obama's 100-day approval ratings were 8-9 points higher than than the share of the vote they took on Election Day. That was thanks, in large part, to the cross-over support they were getting. In fact, Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton were getting anywhere from 25 to 30 percent support from the opposite party's voters. There wasn't a deep well of goodwill from the other side, but at least there was some water in there. Today, that well has all but dried up with NBC polling that showed both Trump and Biden getting only 9 percent approval from the other side at similar points in their presidencies. 

With an average approval rating at 54 percent, Biden is basically polling within 3 points of where he was six months ago. Even high marks for his handling of COVID- including support of more than one-third of Republicans—haven't translated to a bigger 'honeymoon' bump in Biden's job rating. 

That's not all that bad for Biden, however. After all, holding onto what he got in 2020 means holding onto a 50+ approval rating. For Trump, who won with just 46 percent of the vote, failing to build on his 2016 coalition was politically fatal. He never hit 50 percent job approval during his tenure as president and lost re-election taking just 47 percent of the popular vote. 

Moreover, Biden's not generating the kind of intense opposition from independent voters that Trump had. For example, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in April of 2017 found Trump's strongly unfavorable ratings with independent voters at 44 percent. The most recent NBC poll found Biden's strong disapproval ratings among independents at a much lower 18 percent. Even Republicans concede that Biden is hard to demonize. 

But, given how unreliable the polling in 2020 proved to be, is it fair to trust what we see in the data now? 

The biggest challenge that pollsters had in 2020 was getting the correct share of the Trump vote. For the most part, public polling accurately reflected Biden's vote share, but consistently under-represented Trump's vote. For example, the average of the final pre-election polls from pollsters Quinnipiac, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Fox and CNN had Biden taking 52 percent of the vote—just 0.7 percent off from his final 51.3 percent showing. Trump's share, however, averaged out at 41.8 percent, 5 points lower than what he ultimately received.

In other words, even if polls are once again failing to pick up the same kinds of voters they missed in 2020, it's more likely that it'd be a miss on Biden's job disapproval ratings than his approval ratings. In other words, I'd be more likely to assume that Biden's job disapproval rating is higher than 42 percent (where the average of polls has it now) than I would be to assume that it's much lower than 51/52 percent. 

But, we also know that even if Biden held onto a 51-54 percent job approval rating for the 2022 midterms, that's still not as robust as Democrats would need to feel confident about holding onto their narrow majorities in the House and Senate. We know that job approval rating is strongly correlated with vote share. People who think POTUS is doing a good job, vote for his party. Those who think he's doing a not-so-good job vote against his party. In the last four midterm elections, those who disapproved of the sitting president voted by overwhelming margins (anywhere from 66 points to 82 points) for the opposite party. Those who approved of the sitting president voted for his party by similar margins. We've also witnessed historically low ticket-splitting over these last few years, suggesting that it's going to be more difficult than ever for a Democrat to 'outrun' opinions of Biden.

Biden's showing in the five states that host critical Senate races in 2022—Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Nevada—was 1.2 to 2.6 points lower than his national vote. In two other states that Democrats would like to put in play in 2022, Florida and Ohio, Biden underperformed his national showing by 3.6 and 6.1 percent, respectively. In fact, the only potential battleground 2022 state where Biden outperformed his national vote share was New Hampshire. If Biden is unable to crack into the mid-high 50 percent range—even as his administration has been widely successful in tackling COVID—what happens when/if COVID is no longer a driving concern? A strong economy would help. But, even there, Biden's job approval on the economy (48-52 percent in ABC/Washington Post, Fox, and NBC polls) mirrors his overall job approval rating. In other words, it would be fair to assume that a Biden job approval of 54 percent nationally would translate to just over 51 percent in Pennsylvania and 50 percent in Florida. Even a 50 percent showing nationally would put him underwater in every one of those states. 

The good news for Democrats is that Biden is above water on job approval. The not-so-good news is that this could be his high-water mark. And, in many of the key battleground states for 2022, Democrats can't afford for Biden to drift much below it. 

Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool