Presidential approval is Going the way of right track-wrong track

by | Jun 26, 2023 | Editor's Blog, Polling | 1 comment

A poll released yesterday showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump by four points, 49% to 45%, despite an approval rating that has Biden underwater by ten points. The poll also noted that voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden still supported him by a margin of 51% to 39% over Trump. That poses a question that the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter asked in May. Has presidential approval rating become disconnected from presidential support? 

First, let me say that I’m pretty dubious that any poll taken this far out from an election has much connection to the outcome. I think polling in general is a bit of a mess, especially head-to-head questions. Still, I’ve been wondering the same thing as Walter for a while. Approval ratings seem to have a lot less significance than they did in the past. 

Walter notes that Biden is the only president in recent history whose low approval ratings “didn’t cause disaster for his party in a midterm election.” In that election, the “somewhat disapprove” voters supported Democrats by about four points, keeping them in control of the Senate and keeping loses in the House to a minimum. We’ll see if that holds in 2024. 

My question is, why? Of course, I have some ideas. I think that, historically, the approval of the president has been a measure of people’s satisfaction with government, which, in turn, has been a reflection of their overall satisfaction with their lives. If their paycheck isn’t going as far as they think it should, they blame the president. If gas prices are too high, they blame the president. 

I think today, other reasons also influence our view of government. We are bombarded by negative messages about our country and our government from all sides. We’ve lost our once-trusted news sources because any news that offends one side or the other gets attacked on cable news and social media. Instead of spending time figuring out who to believe, Americans are just tuning out. Their negative views of the president have more to do with their negative views of the news than their personal situation. 

The approval of the president is following the path of the right track-wrong track question. We used to be able to measure people’s view of the state of the country by asking if they believe it was on the right track or wrong track. Now, they always say it’s on the wrong track. We haven’t had half the country say it’s on the right track in more than a decade. When Obama got re-elected, a majority of the country, 55%, thought we were headed in the wrong direction and only 41% in the right direction. George W. Bush faced the same numbers in 2004. These results may be indicative of a general malaise that’s been hovering over the country for the past 20 years, but right track-wrong track is not a very useful measure anymore. 

I suspect the approval rating of the president is reaching a similar point. We’re perpetually dissatisfied with our political leaders and there’s probably not a lot they can do to change it. The background noise that is constantly telling us the world is falling apart leaves a bad taste in our mouths about anyone running for president. 

I suspect most of the voters who somewhat disapprove of Biden are low-information voters whose views reflect a general dissatisfaction with the state of the nation. They aren’t paying much attention to policies and, while their lives may be going okay, they’re also not going great. They’re constantly hearing negative messages about the country so they don’t feel good about anything in Washington. That said, they don’t believe a new president is going to make things a whole lot better, even if they believe the wrong choice could make things much worse. They have come to expect that they will be at least vaguely dissatisfied with whomever is in the White House. Hence, their satisfaction with the president has become detached from how they’ll vote.

1 Comment

  1. Elaine B. McCollum

    I think you are right to some extent, but I probably would be a person who would answer that question as “somewhat satisfied”. I don’t think Biden has done enough on Climate change legislation and finding a solution for our immigration problems, but I support him wholeheartedly. Could there be more like me?

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