There has been a surge of optimism among Democrats lately when it comes to November's midterm elections. The short version of the thinking is: Maybe we're not going to get clobbered after all! But much of their hope is still likely in vain. For one reason: President Joe Biden.
It's true that so-called generic ballot polling has moved a few points in the Democrats' direction. The generic ballot question is: If the election were held today, would you vote for the Republican or the Democratic candidate for your representative in Congress? In the RealClearPolitics average of polls, the Republican Party has led in the generic ballot question since late last year. At one point, in February, the GOP lead was 4 points. For much of the summer, it's been 2 points. But recently, Democrats have been catching up, and at the moment the two parties are essentially tied in the RCP average, with Republicans at 44.2% and Democrats at 44%.
In the Senate, Democrats do have some reason for optimism about keeping their 50-50 tie, which, with the Democratic vice president, gives them operational control. Former President Donald Trump has pushed weak candidates in a few key races -- Georgia and Pennsylvania foremost among them -- who might end up costing Republicans their chance to win control of the Senate. There has been much discussion about Trump's clout in GOP primaries, but of course, the final test is whether his candidates actually get elected.
The problem is, the House still looks bad for Democrats. And perhaps the biggest reason is this: A president's job approval rating is a critical indicator, perhaps the best single indicator, of how well his party will do in midterm elections for the House. And Biden's job approval rating is still low and unlikely to rise out of the danger zone in the next 2 1/2 months.
History is the evidence. There have been a dozen midterm elections since 1974. The president's party gained seats in just two of them. One was 2002, when the nation was on war footing under President George W. Bush and voters were not in the mood to challenge presidential leadership. Bush's job approval at election time was 63%. Even with that, his party picked up only six seats. But of course the real news was that the GOP did not lose seats.
The other example was 1998, when President Bill Clinton was being impeached by Republicans -- a very unpopular move on the GOP's part. Clinton's job approval rating soared to 66%, and Democrats picked up five seats. Republicans, who thought they would gain a bunch of seats, were stunned.
Even a president with high approval ratings can lose seats. It happened in 1986, when Ronald Reagan's job approval rating was 63% -- really good -- and the Republican Party still lost five seats. In 1990, George H.W. Bush's rating was 58%, and his party lost eight seats.
The bottom line is that a high job approval rating can protect a president against blowout midterm losses. On the other hand, when a president's rating goes down, bad things happen for his party. Look at a few examples, all with numbers from the Gallup poll: In 2010, Barack Obama's job approval rating was 45%, and his party lost 63 seats in the House. In 1994, Clinton's rating was 46%, and his party lost 53 House seats. In 2018, Trump's rating was 41%, and his party lost 40 seats in the House. In 1982, Reagan's rating was 42%, and his party lost 26 seats. In 2006, George W. Bush's rating was 38%, and his party lost 30 seats.
Biden's job approval rating at the moment is 41.2% in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. The numbers are very similar with a different mix of polls at FiveThirtyEight, where Biden's approval rating is 40.7%.
Biden's approval rating at day 581 of his presidency is lower than any other president since World War II, with the exceptions of Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman. Even Trump, whose ratings were low his entire presidency, had a higher approval at this point in his term than Biden does now.
History says a president with a job approval rating of 41% will not see midterm gains. He just won't. But suppose Biden's approval rating goes up. What would happen then? The answer is -- it's not gonna happen. Note this from the elections analyst Nathan Gonzales: "Looking back more than 70 years, there has not been a single president who substantially improved his job approval rating from late January/February of a midterm election year to late October/early November. "In the last 18 midterm elections going back to Harry Truman in 1950, the average president's job approval rating dropped 8 points between this time of year and Election Day."
In the RealClearPolitics average, Biden's job approval was 41.2% on February 1st. It is 41.2% now. That's what Gonzales was talking about. Biden is right where he was at the beginning of February. That's not likely to substantially change by election day.
Nevertheless, some Democrats are feeling optimism. Even though Biden is no better off than he was in February, he is more than 4 points better than last month, when he hit an all-time low of 36.8% in the RCP average. In the FiveThirtyEight average, Biden has risen from a low of 37.5% to today's 40.7%, an increase of 3.2 points. Are those improvements big enough improvement to change midterm results? Not when the president remains stuck in the low 40s.
Finally, the story might perhaps be more accurately told by another tweet, this one from the Washington Examiner's David Drucker, that gets at the wishful thinking that can occur in the weeks and months before an election. "Midterm cycles since '06 have certain rhythm," Drucker wrote. "1) Maybe POTUS' party will avoid losses. 2) Things look good for the out party. 3) Things look REALLY good for the out party. 4) Hold on, maybe POTUS' party won't lose as many seats as thought. 5) Could POTUS' party avoid wipeout? 6) WIPEPOUT." That is still the most likely scenario.
This content originally appeared on the Washington Examiner at washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/biden-is-still-dragging-his-party-down.
(Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. For a deeper dive into many of the topics Byron covers, listen to his podcast, The Byron York Show, available on the Ricochet Audio Network at ricochet.com/series/byron-york-show and everywhere else podcasts are found.)