Fox's obsession with Biden's polling misses the point
Sure, he's not popular. But elections aren't comparisons with the almighty.
By Noah Berlatsky
“Biden’s approval rating hits all-time low,” Fox declared last week. Before that, its headlines read: “President Biden near record low approval among key groups.” “Biden approval sinks once again.” “Biden approval ratings remain well underwater, far below most recent presidents.” “Biden plagued by negative approval ratings ahead of second State of the Union speech.”
Fox, clearly, wants its audience to know that Biden’s approval ratings are not so great.
The incentives here are pretty obvious. Fox is telling the Republican base that their hatred of Biden puts them in the majority, and that after stinging defeats in 2018, 2020, and 2022, they are finally going to have their revenge next year, when unpopular Joe Biden is swept from office by Trump (or maybe DeSantis).
The headlines, in short, are right-wing hopium. And Fox News viewers love that stuff. They click on it.
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How much reality is there in that hopium though? Is Biden’s reelection bid really doomed? Should Republicans rejoice and Democrats cower?
Fox would no doubt like that. But no matter how many articles they run on Biden’s low approval, the fact remains that he’s fairly well positioned for 2024. And he’s likely to be helped, not harmed, by the GOP underestimating him yet again.
Biden’s approval really is low
First, the bad news (or good news, if you’re Fox) — Biden’s approval numbers really are ugly.
According to 538’s poll aggregator, he’s currently at about 42 percent approval, 53 percent disapproval — 11 points underwater. That puts him dead last among presidents in the post-war era at this point in his presidency — even slightly behind the extremely unpopular 2019 Donald Trump. And as you’d expect, Fox loves to highlight outlier polls that make Biden’s comparative numbers look even worse.
The low poll numbers are driven in part by a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats. An AP-NORC survey in February found that only 37 percent of Democrats wanted Biden to seek a second term.
But Biden is also weak with independents. A grim IBD/TIPP poll in March gave him only 28 percent approval with independent voters, and a whopping 60 percent disapproval.
It’s not clear exactly why Biden’s numbers are so bad. Unemployment is currently at record lows, and while inflation remains a problem, it’s been falling. In many ways, as Claudia Sahm argues, the recovery from the covid recession has been remarkable, and has especially benefited those most in need, including Black male workers and disabled workers.
Covid deaths are still much too high — at some 200 or so a day — but they do also appear to be on a downward trend. Biden’s passed a good deal of popular legislation that directly helps people, including a measure controlling prescription drug costs and extensions of the student loan moratorium while he tries to get his forgiveness program through the Supreme Court.
So perhaps something less tangible is at play. Robert Kuttner at The American Prospect argues that Biden’s biggest problem is simply his age.
“Most Americans experience Biden as too old, certainly too old to run for a second term,” he says.
It’s also possible that Biden’s approval among his own coalition is hurt by the fact that at the state level, there is a lot of bad news for Democrats. Far right red state governments, emboldened by a radical Christofascist Supreme Court majority, have launched brutal assaults on abortion rights, trans rights, and voting rights.
These setbacks make Biden seems powerless in his own presidency, stymied by Manchin and Sinema and by an intransigent and increasingly rabid GOP. Creeping fascism makes people nervous and depressed. It’s hard to approve of the president presiding over it.
Biden keeps winning despite bad numbers, though
People may be turned off by Biden’s age; they may be angry that he’s unable to stop Republican depredations. But whatever the reason for Biden’s weak approval numbers, they don’t seem to translate into GOP wins.
Biden’s approval rating was almost exactly the same right before the 2022 election as it is now; he was at about 42 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval. Yet, Democrats had a historically stunning midterm performance — one of the four best for the president’s party in the last century. For the first time since 1934, the president’s party gained governorships. Democrats also flipped five state legislatures.
It isn’t just the midterms either. Since the Supreme Court gutted abortion rights in the Dobbs decision, Democrats have consistently over-performed. Red state Kansas voted to preserve abortion rights in a stunning upset in August of last year. And just last month, in a hotly contested election, Democrats won a key state Wisconsin Supreme Court seat in a landslide, gaining a majority on the body for the first time in 15 years.
Biden’s approval on the day of that victory? 43 percent, or about the same as it is now.
People seem to at least in part blame Biden for the GOP assault on their rights. But they also know that voting for Democrats is the best way to get those rights back. In these elections, the venerable connection between presidential approval and party electoral fortunes seems to have been broken.
As Biden frequently points out, elections are a choice. Voters don’t have the luxury of pulling the lever only for perfect candidates.
So while 42 percent approval isn’t great in a vacuum, it may end up being more than enough to beat whoever the GOP nominates.
Republicans are also very unpopular
Part of the reason Republicans keep losing is that they keep nominating extreme, and even bizarre, candidates who are loathed by general election voters. For example, Dan Kelly, the losing candidate in the aforementioned Wisconsin Supreme Court race, also lost in a run for a seat in 2020. Kelly alone flipped not one, but two seats to Democrats. Will the GOP stop nominating him now? Who knows? Maybe they’ll keep going until he’s handed every seat on the court to Democrats. We can hope!
Whatever Kelly’s fate in Wisconsin, nationally the GOP seems set to continue with poor candidate selection for 2024. The polling leader right now is Trump, fresh off a failed coup attempt, a 2022 midterm cycle in which some of his most prominent endorsees suffered humiliating defeats, and facing a long list of legal troubles which could interfere with his ability to campaign.
Trump’s a known quantity who’s already been president. No one is going to vote for him as a change agent. He’s also deeply unpopular himself; currently his favorability/unfavorability is 41.6 percent/54.5 percent — slightly worse than Biden’s.
Trump isn’t guaranteed the nomination, of course. But his main challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, doesn’t have great national numbers either. In April his approval was just over 40 percent, with 18 percent strongly approving and 28 percent strongly disapproving.
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It’s too early for polls to be very predictive at this point, but for what it’s worth, most current numbers suggest a very competitive race with Biden having a slight advantage over Trump and a very slight disadvantage against DeSantis.
“From where we’re standing today, based on factors like POTUS approval ratings, candidate favorabilities, and economic growth, the likeliest outcomes for 2024 probably range from ‘small Dem lead’ to ‘small Rep lead,’” the Economist’s G. Elliott Morris said on Twitter.
Morris also noted that things can change. And it’s worth emphasizing that the Republicans in particular are dealing with some pretty unusual internal divisions and potential catastrophic downsides. Trump might be convicted of a range of crimes by the time 2024 rolls around. More, if the GOP nominates another candidate, Trump may well refuse to endorse, and could even run third party, or urge his voters to abandon the GOP. None of those outcomes are exactly likely, but they aren’t implausible either. Primary season this time around could get very weird.
Hopium doesn’t make you stronger
Again, no one should assume that Biden’s going to win. Trump won in 2016; he could win again. The GOP has struggled electorally, but it has structural advantages in the Senate and Electoral College. The party could easily lose the popular vote and win the presidency, as it’s done twice in the past quarter century. If there’s a major recession, it could even win a landslide. Nothing is certain, and overconfidence can lead to complacency and disaster — as it did for Democrats in 2016.
Hopium is bad for Democrats. But by the same token, it’s likely to hurt Republicans. Fox insists that Biden is weak over and over and over because that’s what its viewers want to hear. But telling committed partisans what they want to hear isn’t necessarily great electoral strategy.
Republican voters who are sure Biden will lose are less likely to care about nominating an electable candidate. Fox is saying, over and over, that anyone can beat Biden. If that’s true, why worry about Trump’s legal problems? Why try to nominate a moderate who might appeal to independent voters? Voters who see a general election as a coronation rather than a dog fight are likely to gravitate to more extreme, less electable candidates.
The 2024 election is still a long way away. Biden could lose. But Fox’s certainty that he will is at least one thing currently in Democrats’ favor.
CNN’s Trump town hall is a bad omen for 2024
By Aaron Rupar
In 2016, CNN covered Donald Trump’s empty podium instead of Hillary Clinton speeches. They’re now going back to that toxic well.
It shouldn’t have to be said, but in light of news that CNN is holding a town hall with Donald Trump next Wednesday in New Hampshire, it apparently needs to: It’s irresponsible for media outlets to treat a guy who attempted a coup less than three years ago like a normal presidential candidate.
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