To Predict Biden’s Political Fate, Keep an Eye on Independents

What is potentially so damaging for President Biden and Democrats isn’t so much the substance of the decision to pull out of Afghanistan. After all, any chance of the conflict turning out well ended about 15 years ago. It was the shambolic execution of it. The intelligence community, Pentagon officials, the State Department, and the West Wing all likely share some culpability. But as President Truman said, “The buck stops here.”

In terms of politics, what will all of this mean? On the one hand, the 2022 midterm election is 63 weeks away. Few events have a shelf life quite that long. More broadly, however, the political danger for Biden is that the issue raises questions of competence. History shows that when voters begin to question a president’s competence, confidence is very hard to restore. That toothpaste is hard to get back into the tube.

Downstream, the implications could be enormous for Democrats’ majorities in the Senate and the House, which are already precarious. A one-seat loss costs Democrats control in the former; five seats in the latter. With those margins, Democrats can hardly afford for anything to go wrong. A party holding not only the presidency but also the House and Senate has total accountability for the federal government, and it receives credit or blame accordingly. Voters don’t often make distinctions between making actual mistakes or just being unlucky enough to be in charge when things happen to go bad.

Biden’s approval ratings have been in a gentle decline for some time. What little honeymoon period that presidents have in this time of extreme partisanship has faded away, while concerns about a resurgence of the pandemic (plus its economic implications) and the situation in Afghanistan have been weighing down his numbers.

With Republican voters already adamantly opposed to Biden, that creates a ceiling that neither he nor any other Democratic president can breach. Conversely, voters in the Democratic column for the most part will stick with him, creating a hard floor of support. The distance between that high floor and low ceiling is determined by how independents come down.

At the time Kabul fell on Sunday, Aug. 15, Biden’s approval ratings were just dipping below the 50 percent mark. Polls released since then haven’t shown a great deal of movement, but the full implications of the Afghanistan situation aren’t fully priced in.

The Gallup poll was in the field Aug. 2-17 and reported a job-approval rating of 49 percent. The Associated Press/NORC poll, conducted Aug. 12-16, showed 54 percent approval. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted by Jeff Horwitt and Hart Research from the Democratic side and Bill McInturff and Public Opinion Strategies for the GOP, interviewed voters Aug. 14-17, showing an approval rate of 50 percent. The Ipsos-Reuters field dates were Aug. 18-19 and showed 46 percent approval.

Biden’s RealClearPolitics average currently sits at 48.3 percent approval, while FiveThirtyEight puts him at 48.4 percent. My hunch is that two months from now, Biden’s approval ratings will be closer to 40 percent than to 50 percent.

Biden might shed more than a few points even within his own party. As always, for historical comparisons we rely on the Gallup Organization, which has been polling job approval and presidential politics for 75 years. The lowest levels Presidents Trump and Obama hit among their own party members in Gallup polling was 77 and 72 percent, respectively. George W. Bush dropped to 55 percent among Republicans; George H.W. Bush, to 57 percent. Bill Clinton’s lowest was 63 percent.

The average low point in approval among their own party members for those five predecessors was 65 percent, but given the higher level of tribalism of late, a worst-case scenario might drop Biden into the 75 percent range. Even if things don’t get that bad, however, he still stands to lose plenty of ground from his 93 percent approval in the August Gallup survey.

Considering that Biden’s lowest approval rating so far among Republicans has been 7 percent and his highest 12 percent, there isn’t that much room to drop. Trump’s lowest rating among members of the other party was 2 percent, Obama’s was 6 percent, George W. Bush's was 3 percent, his father's was 9 percent, and Clinton's was 12 percent, averaging just over 6 percent. Biden would do well to hover around 10 percent.

Independent voters may hold the key to all of this. For months, pollsters from both parties have been privately noting an increasing anxiety on the part of many independents about the size of Democrats’ spending packages, both from a budgetary standpoint and a concern over inflation. So where will they land on Biden now?

At their low ebbs among independents, Trump dropped to 29 percent and Obama to 31 percent. George W. Bush’s low among independents was 19 percent, George H.W. Bush's was 27 percent, and Clinton's was 28 percent. Biden’s high among independents had been 61 percent, but he currently sits at his low of 43 percent, according to Gallup. If things continue to trend downward for Biden, a 30 percent level might be plausible.

So put all of that together and what do you get? A drop to about 35 or 36 percent in overall approval is a plausible bottom end of the range of possibilities. Leveling out around 45 percent may be the best he can hope for, at least over the next few weeks. But with congressional margins so narrow, even that best case is extremely problematic. Rebuilding voters’ confidence in you is one of the most difficult things for a politician to manage.

This article was published for the National Journal on August 24, 2021.