Is Joe Biden actually that unpopular, or is polarization distorting his approval rating? | No. 180 — January 23, 2022
In which I show you some math that illustrates why you need to take polarization into account when comparing Biden's approval rating presidents'
Harry Enten, an elections and polling analyst for CNN, writes this weekend that “Only Trump was in worse electoral shape than Biden after his first year as president.” His article focuses on historical job approval ratings, and he writes::
Start out by just looking at his overall job approval ratings. Biden has an approval rating of only about 41% and a disapproval rating of 54% in an average of polls. This makes for a net approval rating of -13 points.
Biden's poor ratings are quite a turnaround from where he was earlier. In the middle of September, his net approval rating was -3 points. Biden stood at +11 points in the middle of May. His first net approval rating of his presidency was +19 points.
No elected president in the polling era besides Trump has ever had a negative net approval at this point in his presidency. Trump's was at -17 points and was actually improving. Biden's is stagnant if not down a touch.
Indeed. Here are the presidents’ approval ratings on this day in previous presidents’ tenures in office, according to my averaging of all available polling:
W Bush**: 80
*I’m stopping at Nixon because “modern” politics roughly starts in 1968.
**Double asterisks denote ongoing wars.
So, Joe Biden’s approval ratings are certainly lower than the average for prior presidents’ But the question really isn’t Biden compares historically, but how he compares versus expectations. This is an important distinction because there is an extra variable we should account for, that most media analysts don’t really highlight: partisanship/political polarization.
It is not enough, in other words, to say that Biden is unpopular today. We would hypothesize, before even seeing any data, that the president’s approval ratings would be lower than, eg, Clinton’s or Reagan’s just by virtue of having a larger base of devoted opponents by default. Another way of saying this is that because there are fewer swing voters, it is more impressive now if a president manages to win over 60 or 65% of Americans than if they did it in 1960. Correspondingly, it is less disastrous if they hit 45 or 40%. That’s because the share who approve of them are much likelier to actually vote for them in upcoming elections.
Polarization means presidents have lower ceilings to their approval — because they have more opponents that are hard to sway by new events or evidence. But they also have higher floors.
Consider the math relating probability of approving of a president to voting for them. In less polarized eras, presidents may have been able to count on the support of 70% of their approvers and 30% of their disapprovers. That means a president with a 50% approval rating and 45% disapproval rating (with 5% of voters undecided) would win roughly (0.7 * 0.5) + (0.3 * 0.45) = 48.5% of the vote. But in polarized times, they might win 90% of their approvers and 10% of their disapprovers, equal to (0.9 * 0.5) + (0.1 * 0.45) = 49.5% of the vote. Polarization, in summary, means Joe Biden can win re-election with lower approval ratings than we’d predict based on the historical relationship between approval and actual vote share. That’s also why Donald Trump managed to get so close to re-election in 2020 while having a paltry 43% approval rating.
These are only simple, hypothetical demonstrations, but I think they make a good case for relying less on historical comparisons of presidential approval — and paying more attention to quantitative models that can adjust vote-share predictions for the degree of partisanship and polarization in the electorate. And if you abstract that out, this is also an argument for paying less attention to pundits who have been steeped in the past conventional wisdom on presidential popularity and more to those who can update their priors about politics based on the reality of political psychology and voter behavior.
As far as Biden is concerned, the upshot is that he doesn’t need a 50-55% approval rating to win re-election. He would obviously prefer to have a higher rating — and there may be some things he could do to get there — but depending on his support among undecideds and the wishy-washiness of disapprovers, a 45% rating could do just fine.
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