KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Presidential approval is typically a good predictor of the share of the vote an incumbent president will receive.
— Recent presidents often ran a little ahead of their approval as opposed to a little behind, although the sample size is very small.
— Assuming President Biden’s approval, which is mired in the low-to-mid 40s, does not spike to 50% or better before Election Day, he is likely going to have to perform well with those who only “somewhat” disapprove of his job performance. Democrats held their own with these voters in 2022.
Biden versus his approval
President Biden announced Tuesday that he would be seeking a second term as president.
Biden’s announcement comes as his approval rating, which has been net negative in national polling ever since the aftermath of the collapse of the Afghan government in late summer 2021, has chugged along at a consistent and underwater level.
According to the FiveThirtyEight national polling average, Biden’s approval today is 43% approve and 53% disapprove. That’s only marginally better than Donald Trump’s approval at the same time of his presidency, 41% approve/53% disapprove. Biden’s approval was clearly worse last summer than it is now — he fell below 40% from roughly mid-June to mid-August — but Biden’s numbers now are also a touch weaker than they’ve been at other points of the post-midterm period. As it was with Trump’s approval ratings, you may need a magnifying glass to see the changes in Biden’s numbers.
The key question for Biden is whether a president can win reelection with an approval rating in the low-to-mid 40s. A cursory look at history suggests the answer may be no, but there are factors specific to the current environment — factors that helped Democrats limit their losses in last year’s midterm — that we should take into account.
Generally speaking, a president’s approval rating is a decent guide to the share of the vote that president receives, although of course the historical sample size is not large. Table 1 shows the approval rating of recent incumbent presidents around the time of their second elections. We used FiveThirtyEight’s historical averages to compile this table, and we omitted Gerald Ford because he was not an incumbent seeking a second term and because there did not appear to be fresh approval polling around the time of his election. We first compiled this table in 2019, and we have since added Donald Trump’s approval rating versus reelection performance to it.
Table 1: Presidential approval at Election Day, 1972-2020
Sources: FiveThirtyEight and Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
Notice that the vote share and the presidential approval numbers are very similar in most instances, although presidents generally ran slightly ahead of their approval rating. The only incumbent president who ran behind his approval rating was Bill Clinton in 1996, which featured a significant third-party candidate, Ross Perot (Perot also ran in 1992, but George H.W. Bush ran ahead of his abysmally low approval rating that year). In 2020, Trump’s approval got a couple of points better in the closing days of the election, and then he ran a little bit ahead of his approval, allowing him to come close to winning despite losing the national popular vote by 4.5 points.
We’d expect Biden to run ahead of his approval rating, too, particularly if he remains mired in the low-to-mid 40s. The floor for both parties, barring a major and unexpected third-party run, is probably 45% or even higher. No major-party nominee in the 6 presidential elections held this century has dipped below that share.
Remember that in 2022, Democrats held their own despite Biden’s poor approval rating in no small part because they did better with Biden disapprovers than Republicans did with Biden approvers. According to the 2 major exit polls of the 2022 election — the Edison Research survey done for several media entities as well as the NORC at the University of Chicago VoteCast done for the Associated Press and Fox News — Biden’s approval/disapproval split among the midterm electorate was 44% approve/55% disapprove (Edison) or 43% approve/57% disapprove (VoteCast). Democratic House candidates won the Biden approvers 94%-5% (Edison) or 90%-8% (VoteCast), while Republican House candidates won the Biden disapprovers 86%-12% (Edison) or 82%-15% (VoteCast).
Both polls also asked voters whether they strongly or somewhat approved or disapproved of Biden’s job performance, and both found that Democrats narrowly won the 10% (Edison) or 13% (VoteCast) of voters who somewhat disapproved of the president.
This still worked out to a Republican victory in the overall House popular vote — there were, after all, many more Biden disapprovers than approvers — and Republicans got more than 90% of the vote from the strong disapprovers, who made up about 45% of the electorate in both polls. Overall, the voters gave Republicans just a small edge in the House, and Democrats expanded their Senate majority in the same election.
Unless Biden’s approval improves significantly, rising to around 50% or better by the time of his reelection, the “soft” Biden disapprovers are probably going to decide the election. If they vote against Biden en masse, he is likely doomed, particularly because Biden may have to win the popular vote by a few points in order to win if the current bias toward Republicans in the Electoral College endures. But these cross-pressured voters are also going to consider what the alternative to Biden is. As we noted after Biden’s State of the Union address in early February, Biden is very reliant on the Republican Party nominating a presidential candidate who does not have much appeal to these voters — and the GOP may deliver for Biden on that account.