ANALYSIS — Don’t call it a comeback. He’s been here for about a year and a half.
Presidents don’t improve their political standing in midterm election years. That is, they didn't until President Joe Biden came along. And the uptick in Biden’s job approval rating is one factor in Democrats’ renewed optimism about the upcoming elections.
For much of the cycle, there wasn’t a lot of good news for Democrats. Biden’s job approval rating was mired in mediocrity, or worse, and the prospects for improvement were not good.
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 past 18 midterm elections going back to Harry S. Truman in 1950, the president’s job approval rating dropped an average of 8 points between early in the midterm year and Election Day.
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 stuck at 39 percent (in February) and 40 percent (in November) in 2018, and Democrats had a 41-seat House gain.
Biden is poised to buck the presidential trend this year.
In January, Biden’s job approval rating was at 40 percent, according to Gallup. The most recent, Aug. 1-23, Gallup survey had that rating at 44 percent. While modest, if sustained it would represent the largest improvement for a president in a midterm year going back well more than half a century.
Biden’s movement is not unique to Gallup. He went from 38 percent approval at the end of July to 43 percent as of Sunday, according to the FiveThirtyEight national average, and 37 percent to 42 percent in the RealClearPolitics national average. And Biden’s national improvement is largely mirrored in district-level polling data.
Typically a referendum
That improvement is significant considering midterm elections are typically a referendum on the sitting president and the party in power. So any improvement in Biden’s job rating should benefit Democrats on the ballot this year.
Of course, Biden’s standing is still not great. Fifty-three percent of respondents disapproved of the job he’s doing in the recent Gallup poll. And there’s the potential for the president’s rating to go back down, especially if an issue such as college loan forgiveness is as politically toxic as Republicans believe it is. (So far, polling finds Biden’s plan more popular than not.)
While Democrats obviously don’t mind Biden getting politically stronger, they are currently benefiting from another dynamic. A significant chunk of voters who disapprove of the job Biden is doing are not holding other Democrats responsible or flocking to GOP candidates. Many Democratic incumbents are overperforming Biden’s job rating in key races.
Republicans believe that millions of dollars in TV advertising over the next few weeks will solve that problem. They’ll seek to help voters connect the dots to Biden and ultimately knock out a batch of Democratic incumbents. For example, GOP strategists are particularly excited about Maine’s 2nd District, where Democratic Rep. Jared Golden’s vote for the so-called Inflation Reduction Act gives Republicans a direct link between the congressman and Biden’s agenda.
But it’s possible Republicans have a larger problem. While voters are primed for change due to high gas prices, inflation, the cost of living, crime and immigration, they are not yet comfortable voting for Republicans as the alternative.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade has inflamed Democratic voters and caused some independent voters to pause after subsequent actions by GOP lawmakers in states to effectively eliminate access to legal abortion. That’s a politically unpopular position.
Then there’s the Trump factor. The former president continues to interject himself into the national conversation with rallies, endorsements and press releases. The seizure of documents at Mar-a-Lago, the hearings of the Jan. 6 select House committee and various ongoing legal proceedings only intensify that national attention. Even out of office, Trump is still the leader of the GOP, and attention on him is a liability for Republican candidates in the general election.
As I wrote back in January, with Biden’s job approval rating still underwater, Republicans just need to get out of the way of voters wanting to change the status quo. But the GOP can’t seem to get it right, and the party finds itself in a more difficult position to take back the Senate than six months ago. Republicans also could end up with a new House majority so narrow that it’s virtually ungovernable.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.