Independents Are Boosting Biden

Watching President Biden’s approval (and disapproval) ratings in the polls lately is about as exciting as watching paint dry. In five Gallup polls since taking office, his approval has ranged only 3 points, from 54 percent to 57 percent (Gallup is the only polling organization with data spanning the post-World War II era and comparing modern presidents). Biden’s disapproval has varied only by five points, from 37 percent to 42 percent.

In both Fox News polls since the inauguration, Biden’s approval rating was 54 percent. His disapproval was 43 percent in April and 44 percent in the May survey released Wednesday. Similarly, the approval range in the NPR/PBS/Marist College poll is just 5 points, 49 to 54 percent. Its disapproval spread is wider than the others, but still only as low as 35 percent and no higher than 44 percent. In Monmouth University’s two polls conducted during Biden’s term, his approvals were 51 and 54 percent and disapprovals were 41 and 42 percent. Other polls have fallen into the same patterns, but haven't been conducted as frequently and thus aren’t as useful for looking at ranges.

This is not a commentary about Biden’s performance or style (though his tenure certainly been less tempestuous and tumultuous than his predecessor’s); it just reflects a new reality that a large share of Americans are firmly locked into either support or opposition. There is little room for fluctuation in either direction. In the five Gallup polls for example, voters who consider themselves Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents gave Biden approvals ranging from 92 percent to 98 percent. Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, it was the mirror opposite—his lowest 8 percent, his highest 12 percent.

Even among pure independents, who don’t lean either way, Biden’s approval was 50 percent at its lowest, 61 percent at its highest. Any movement in his overall numbers was a product of relatively small movement among that 5 to 12 points of Americans. In May of his first year in office, President Trump’s approval averaged 84 percent among Republicans and 8 percent among Democrats. Yet while Trump had a 36-point approval rating through his first May, Biden is at 54 percent, hence the different overall approval rating.

The fact is that Trump’s numbers moved around a lot less than one might expect given the wild ride that was his administration. While his highest Gallup approval rating never exceeded 49 percent, his disapproval never dipped below 34 percent—just a 15-point spread. Of Trump’s nine elected predecessors, those with the smallest range between highs and lows were Kennedy at 27 points; Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama with 31-point ranges; and Reagan, who had a 32-point spread. The widest ranges belonged to George W. Bush (65 points), George H. W. Bush (60 points), Carter (47 points), and Clinton (37 points).

In some ways, the escalating waves of partisanship began 30 years ago, when Clinton was running against George H.W. Bush. It continued to grow but didn’t quite reach full-blown tribalism until Trump—and now Biden.

These days, both Democrats and Republicans have become virtually monolithic in their support for presidential nominees and approval of presidents of their own party, and in their opposition or disapproval to those on the other side. Despite his administration’s volatility, Trump never dropped in Gallup approval to the depths of either Bush, nor soared to the heights that either did at their bests.

Indeed, of Trump’s nine predecessors, the lowest peak was Reagan’s 68 percent. Nixon and Obama both topped out at 69 percent. Now, it’s hard to imagine how any president, Democrat or Republican, could reach those levels. (For those really interested in this, try the Gallup Presidential Approval Center interactive site.)

There is a temptation for people to either think of independents as close to 40 percent of the electorate, ignoring the fact that most independents are closet partisans and vote pretty much that way. While Trump pursued a base-only strategy to the exclusion of those pure independents, in both 2016 and 2020, Trump was able to turbocharge a slice of infrequent Republican voters that might well not show up for a mere mortal Republican. The Trump strategy can be seen as an extension or exaggerated version of Karl Rove’s 2004 reelection plan for George W. Bush. In their 2000 campaign, the Bush strategy seemed more like many previous campaigns, but in 2004, perhaps in recognition that independents were not likely to break heavily to Bush, they moved to organically grow the base vote, rather than diluting their message by chasing after moderates and independents.

This seems to explain much of what Biden is doing; his legislative agenda is tuned far more for the Democratic base. And the behavior of partisans is similar to what it would have been if Biden were as flamboyant in his style as Trump. The major difference is that Biden has, at least so far, done far better among independents than Trump ever did. Chalk up one point for boring.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on May 29, 2021.