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If history’s a guide, Biden ain’t getting any stronger

Time typically is not friendly to a president’s approval rating

President Joe Biden speaks to the media after a Senate Democrats' luncheon in Russell Building on Jan. 13.
President Joe Biden speaks to the media after a Senate Democrats' luncheon in Russell Building on Jan. 13. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden’s weak political standing looks like cement around the feet of the Democratic majorities in Congress. And even though the 2022 midterm elections are still more than 9 months away, history tells us Biden’s job rating isn’t likely to improve and more likely will deteriorate before Election Day.

NBC News was the latest media entity to drop some bad news on the Democrats. According to its latest bipartisan poll, conducted Jan. 14-18, Biden’s job approval rating stood at 43 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove. A stunning 72 percent of respondents believed the country is on the wrong track, while 22 percent said it’s headed in the right direction. 

That’s significant considering midterm elections are typically a performance review on the sitting president. And if voters don’t like the job he is doing or aren’t satisfied with the direction of the country, they can’t vote against the president because he’s not on the ballot. So voters often vent that frustration against the president’s party. Considering Republicans need a net gain of just one seat to gain control of the Senate and just five seats for a House majority, Democrats need a politically healthy Biden to survive the midterm elections.

It might be easy for Democrats to find solace in the amount of time left before Election Day. But history is a dose of reality for anyone thinking Biden’s standing is going to dramatically improve — or improve much at all. 

Average drop: 8 points

Looking back more than 70 years, there hasn’t been a single president who substantially improved his job approval rating from late January/early February of a midterm election year to late October/early November, according to Gallup’s rich polling archive.

More specifically, in the last 18 midterm elections going back to Harry Truman in 1950, the average president’s job approval rating dropped 8 points between this time of year and Election Day. Biden’s approval was at 40 percent in the most recent Gallup survey, conducted Jan. 3-16. 

President Barack Obama had a 45 percent job approval rating in 2010, when Republicans gained 63 seats. President Bill Clinton had a 46 percent job approval rating in 1994 when the GOP gained 53 seats. 

The most precipitous drop was 21 points by President George W. Bush in 2002. But he fell from an astronomical 84 percent job rating from the rally-’round-the-flag effect after the Sept. 11 attacks and was still at a solid 63 percent around Election Day. President John F. Kennedy dropped 18 points (79 percent to 61 percent) in 1962. And President Lyndon B. Johnson dropped 17 points (61 percent to 44 percent) in 1966. President George H.W. Bush dropped 15 points (73 percent to 58 percent) in 1990. And Clinton dropped 12 points (58 percent to 46 percent) in 1994.

Factoring in 1974 is complicated because Richard Nixon was still president that winter, albeit with a 26 percent job approval rating. Gerald Ford became president in August with a 74 percent job approval rating. By Election Day, that had fallen 20 points to 54 percent.

Donald Trump was one of the few presidents whose approval rating didn’t drop from February to Election Day in a midterm. But he was mired at 39 percent and 40 percent in 2018, leading to Democrats’ 41-seat House gain. 

This general stagnation of an election cycle lines up with my previous Roll Call analysis, when I looked at the accuracy of our election projections a full year from Election Day in both midterm and presidential cycles. Over the past couple of decades, it was possible to accurately identify the direction of midterm and presidential election cycles, even if the magnitude or specifics were unclear in some cases.

In short, even when there was plenty of time for a political environment to get better, it generally didn’t. Maybe we should add “There’s still time” to Things Losing Candidates Say

Of course, history doesn’t predict the future with 100 percent accuracy. And streaks are made to be broken. It’s like a field goal kicker who never misses a kick, right up to the point until he does. But historical trends should not be ignored, and Republicans are set up for a good to potentially great 2022.

Trump a wild card

So what could change that outlook?

Even if the country gets stronger and healthier over the course of the year, that isn’t likely to boost Biden’s numbers significantly. Getting past COVID-19 and improving the country’s supply chain and inflation problem is an expectation, and the president won’t get bonus points for navigating those crises. And Biden’s critics will simply move on to another issue to criticize, putting a ceiling on his job approval rating because Republicans will never say he’s doing a good job.

With enough independent voters primed to send a message to Democrats in Washington, Republicans need to essentially get out of their way. GOP candidates need to be credible alternatives to voters looking for change. 

But Trump’s consistent focus on relitigating the 2020 election and future evidence that proves Republican elected officials were intricately involved in the effort to overturn the presidential election (including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection) could limit the party’s success in 2022. In short, Republicans could discredit themselves as alternatives if enough voters are turned off by who they are and what they stand for.

Until voters reach that breaking point, however, Republicans are on the path to the majorities. 

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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