After nearly eight months of Morning Consult approval ratings above 50 percent, President Joe Biden dipped underwater for the first time in late August. And he’s basically stayed there since.
A Morning Consult survey conducted September 10-12 among more than 15,000 registered voters pegged Biden’s approval rating at 47 percent, compared to 49 percent disapproval. That’s down about 10 points from a peak in February and March. (The pollster adjusted its weighting of results in June.)
Morning Consult’s Biden poll trajectory syncs up with FiveThirtyEight’s polling tracker, which similarly finds Biden’s approval rating sagging from around 54 percent on Memorial Day weekend to about 45 percent by Labor Day.
The proximate cause of Biden’s slide seems to be the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the critical coverage it prompted. More broadly, however, Biden’s approval ratings slipped throughout the summer as optimism about the end of the Covid-19 pandemic gave way to the grimmer news about the delta variant and rising cases and hospitalizations.
“One thing that we’ve seen in our polling not just of the president — we also track approval ratings of all 50 governors — one thing that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic is that regardless of the policy decisions that are made, there’s a pretty strong correlation between the Covid picture and a governor’s approval rating, and therefore a president’s approval rating,” says Morning Consult senior editor Cameron Easley.
While circumstances vary, this sort of erosion happening six to eight months into a president’s first term is far from unprecedented.
President Donald Trump, you might recall, sunk below 40 percent approval in the late summer and fall of 2017 after he pushed an unpopular bill to repeal Obamacare that failed by a single vote in the Senate, then followed that up by defending white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia. Perhaps more analogously for Biden, in August 2009, President Barack Obama’s approval rating dipped below 50 percent for the first time (according to Gallup) as Republicans publicly agitated against his push to pass health care legislation.
Still, Biden’s approval slide — coming amid indications Senate Democrats don’t have the votes to pass a $3.5 trillion human infrastructure bill that was supposed to represent one of the president’s major legislative accomplishments — is an inauspicious development for Democrats. They’re heading into a midterm cycle, where the president’s party generally faces an uphill battle to retain control of the House, and with another challenge from Trump or a successor likely looming in 2024.
“Clearly Trump was in a worse position four years ago than Biden is now,” Easley said. “But given the margins in the House and Senate, how much solace can the White House and the Biden administration take in that fact? I don’t really think it’ll mean that much to them.”
To get the 30,000-foot view of why Biden’s approval rating has slid and what it means, Vox spoke with Easley; a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
As we talk today [on September 14], how have Biden’s number held up since they first dipped below 50 percent last month?
Today’s numbers, which are based on surveys conducted from the 12th through the 14th, we have his approval rating at 47 percent and his disapproval rating at 50 percent, so just about where it was when we wrote that story about his net approval rating dipping underwater for the first time.
Obviously, there’s an inclination to compare these numbers with Trump’s. Did Trump ever hit in the Morning Consult polling 47 percent, or would that be a high-water mark for him?
He did hit 47 percent. We did have something of a honeymoon period captured in our polling in early 2017 that a lot of pollsters weren’t picking up, but eventually things reverted more to the industry mean.
You’ll remember that around this time, August and September 2017, things were pretty brutal for Trump as well. The party had failed to accomplish its years-long quest of repealing and replacing Obamacare. That caused a lot of internal food-fighting between then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Trump himself — just kind of some ugly stuff that spilled out into the open. And then of course the horrific scenes in Charlottesville and the way that Trump responded to those as well helped drive his numbers down.
So looking at the summer of 2017 and the summer of 2021, they were both pretty bad for the [presidents], all things considered. Of course, it’s worth noting that at that time four years ago, the floor for Trump was already apparently much, much lower. At this time he was at 43 percent, and in August 2017 he had dropped all the way down to 39 percent.
So clearly Trump was in a worse position four years ago than Biden is now. But given the margins in the House and Senate, how much solace can the White House and the Biden administration take in that fact? I don’t really think it’ll mean that much to them.
Obama had a similar dip around this time in his first time. We’ve already talked about how Trump’s polling slid in his first fall in office. So this isn’t an unusual thing.
Is it too early for the Biden White House to be concerned that his approval is underwater? Perhaps it’s better to have an ebb early in your term than later.
I think the main concern for the White House right now — and this gets back to something that has been more of the historical trend for the Democratic Party — is that when they are in power, sometimes their base disengages a little bit. And I think one of the big questions for Democrats ahead of next year’s midterms is what happens to their enthusiasm without having Trump quite so involved in the equation.
One thing that we saw with the fallout from the Afghanistan picture is that Biden’s strong approval numbers among Democrats dipped below 50 percent for the first time. That’s right around where they are now as well. So I think that’s a concern.
We saw something similar happen to Trump four years ago, and those strong approval numbers among Republican voters didn’t truly recover until the tax law was enacted. So I think you can say that what this recent movement in Biden’s approval rating does is it probably adds a little bit of pressure just to what they’re feeling with regard to reconciliation and infrastructure.
I don’t think “Build Back Better” is going to completely change the midterm outlook for Biden and the Democrats, but I do think passing the party’s major priorities would probably go a long way in shoring up some enthusiasm among the base, and that’s something that seems to be a problem right now that could be solved in a few months by passing those priorities.
The approval trend line for Biden has gradually gone down as Covid has had a resurgence this summer. What’s your sense of what the sentiment of voters is about how much blame Biden is receiving for Covid? And if we’re in for another tough winter of cases spiking and hospitals being full, how politically problematic will that be for Biden?
One thing that we’ve seen in our polling not just of the president — we also track approval ratings of all 50 governors — one thing that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic is that regardless of the policy decisions that are made, there’s a pretty strong correlation between the Covid picture and a governor’s approval rating, and therefore a president’s approval rating. We saw that continue this summer.
In addition to just tracking overall approval rating, we also track issue approval rating, and we have seen perceptions of Biden’s handling of Covid and of the economy come down during the summer, particularly among independents, as cases and deaths rose, and as inflation rose. So I think if you’re looking at how Biden got from having a 53 percent approval rating to a 47 percent approval rating, half of that movement is Afghanistan, but the other half of it, and the longer-term trend, are just souring perceptions of his handling of Covid and the economy.
I think there’s a perception among Biden defenders on the Afghanistan issue that he was faced with no good options. He could’ve stayed in Afghanistan and risked an escalation if the Taliban starting attacking US troops, or with the withdrawal, which we’ve just experienced, with all the chaos and the attack that killed 13 troops outside the airport in Kabul. So I’m wondering if the polling has indicated that one option or the other would’ve limited the political damage for Biden.
What the polling shows is more than half of voters backed the timeline and think we should’ve pulled out, but the big problem is the way it was handled. Poll after poll has shown that a strong majority of voters disapprove of how that’s been handled.
When you look at the news and media environment of the year, the Afghanistan story is kind of the biggest story since January 6 in terms of real world events that are on camera, that people are able to see. You see these dire consequences for people, and I think that sticks with people, at least for a little while.
Do I think that suggests that with more time the Afghanistan situation becomes less of a political liability for Biden? I do, I think that follows. If you were to ask me if I think the situation with Covid or the economy or Afghanistan would be a bigger issue in next year’s midterm elections, I would definitely say Covid and the economy. But nonetheless, I do think the administration’s handling of the pullout has had a clear effect on Biden’s popularity to date.
A high-profile error can end up having knock-on effects for the way voters perceive a president’s administration’s generally. Obviously, it’s too early for us to tell if that’s the case here or not.