Wednesday, August 2, 2023

BTRTN: Does the Approval Rating Mean Anything Anymore?

Tom is back with the July, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.

JULY 2023

Is it time to bury the Most Important Political Measure of them all, the almighty approval rating?

Once upon a time, say, from the Harry Truman presidency to that of George W. Bush, the approval rating reigned supreme.  Back then, it was a measure of, well, presidential approval.  Pollsters would ask a simple question of respondents, typically registered voters or those they deemed to be “likely” voters:  Do you approve or disapprove of the way [president's name] is handling his job as president?  Once the results were tabulated, voila, you understood, with exquisite clarity, the state of the presidency and all that that implied.  You knew precisely how much political capital a president had to spend – the higher the rating, the more leverage.  You could reasonably calculate his odds of re-election.  You could even wager an educated guess on where he would stack up in the annals of history, whether in the pantheon (“John F. Kennedy remains the only president to never once sink below a 50% approval rating!”) or in the scrapheap (“Donald J. Trump is the only president to never once achieve a 50% approval rating!”).  Back then, when Americans were asked the question, no matter which party, they would pretty much answer the question as asked – how is this particular president doing?

That meant that, over the course of a presidency, there was considerable variation in a president’s approval rating, from week to week, month to month and year to year.  The rating was generally linked to real time events (like 9/11) and new data points (like key economic indicators), and subject to dramatic change if the president was believed to have handled them well or poorly, or caused them to change for better or worse.  Americans could unite – more or less as one -- around George W. Bush’s galvanizing call to action from the ruins of the Twin Towers, and reward him with a 90% approval rating, or collectively castigate the darkest moments rendered by Truman, Nixon, Carter and, yes, Bush as well, and deliver the damning verdict of a rating in the 20’s.  The ratings were not devoid of partisanship, of course, but neither were they beholden to the tribe.

Those days are gone.  The approval rating, like the Supreme Court, Higher Ed, Bud Light, and virtually every other facet of American life, has itself become politicized, robbed of meaning by the radical polarization that has resulted in everyone taking sides on every aspect of life.  Donald Trump, who did more to accelerate polarization than anyone, giving voice to previously unacceptable social views, saw his rating fluctuate between 48% and 34% in his four years.  In a time when Trump upended – or shattered -- almost every political norm there was, nothing he did could drive his approval rating outside that very narrow band.  And now Joe Biden is in that same bandbox, his approval rating stuck in the low 40’s for most of his consequential presidency. 

Biden’s approval rating is a subject of angst among Democrats, because it refuses to budge.  That’s been true for almost two years, after the messy Afghanistan exit ended his 50%+ post-Inaugural honeymoon.  In this past month of July, Biden had about as good a run as any president could hope for.  Most prominently, perhaps, was the continued array of positive economic data, which seem to be pointing toward sticking the “soft landing” the Fed has been targeting in its battle against inflation, one that slows the overheated economy without driving it into recession.  Inflation is down to 3.0%, but GDP growth bumped up yet again, now to +2.4%, while unemployment held at a near-record low of 3.6% (actually down a notch from June), the S&P 500 jumped 3% to an all-time high, and analyst after analyst has lowered the odds of a pre-2024 election recession. 

On top of all that, Biden’s likely opponent in 2024, Donald Trump, was charged with new counts of obstruction in the documents case and appears on the verge of new indictments by Georgia and the DOJ in cases related to the attempted subjugation of the 2020 election.  [Note:  on August 1, Trump was indicted by the DOJ for a series of conspiracies to overthrow the election, easily the most serious set of charges he faces.]   These indictments may help Trump win the GOP nomination, but they are anathema for the general election.  The country will quite possibly be faced with the spectacle of the GOP candidate spending much of the general election campaign season parked in various courtrooms. 

Then there came the news that the Trump campaign, for all of its fundraising prowess, largely fueled by the various indictments, is burning through that money at an alarming rate – largely to pay for Trump’s whopping legal bills.  And – the second indictment, in the documents case, was far less of a fundraising boon for him than the first one related to Stormy Daniels, essentially giving rise to the notion of diminishing returns at best, and rising concern with Trump's legal troubles at worst.

Biden was also gifted by Trump’s principal challenger (for now), Ron DeSantis, who has decided to make the “upside” of slavery a feature of the Florida educational curriculum and a talking point for his campaign.  Perhaps he figured the six--week abortion ban he rammed through in Florida was simply not conservative enough.  The only candidate that critiqued Trump at an Iowa event that featured most of the GOP field, former GOP rep Will Hurd, got booed off the stage.  Senator Tommy Tuberville has decided to hold up military promotions in protest of the military’s progressive abortion policies, putting national security at risk.  The Supreme Court killed another 50+ year old precedent in nuking affirmative action. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that the GOP could not be concocting a more toxic 2024 general election brew if they put the DNC in charge of their messaging.

On top of all that, in July violent crime was reported to be down in 2023 across 37 U.S. cities, and the number of migrant crossings has been cut in half due to the Biden Administration’s stricter asylum policies.  The economy, crime and immigration – Biden’s three most vulnerable issues – suddenly are looking far less fraught, and the GOP is struggling for a credible (if that matters) winning story on each of them.

And yet, for all that, Biden’s approval rating climbed all the way from 41% in June to 42% in July.  Democrats are gnashing their teeth with the grave concern that a President with a rating of 42% cannot possibly be re-elected.  Such a thing has never happened before.  Only George W. Bush won reelection with an approval rating under 50% -- or “underwater” in the parlance – and he checked in at 48%.  Barack Obama was also at 42% roughly 15 months before his reelection, but he managed to push it up over 50% by the time the ballots were being cast.  Trump never got there, stalling at 45% pre-election, and like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush before him, failed to win a second term (Carter and Bush were below 40% prior to their reelection effort.)  So, the thinking goes, if Biden cannot get within field goal range of 50%, he’s toast.  The rule of thumb is clear – in the post-FDR era, every president with an approval rating of 48% and above gets re-elected, and everyone below gets defeated.

Nate Silver once said, in reference to the famed “Blue Wall” that would supposedly ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016, that there was a “Blue Wall” until there wasn’t one.  And this “48% or Bust” convention may just be another truism that is until it isn’t.

Presidential approval ratings have been operating in a far narrower band of late, the ceilings and floors getting tighter and tighter.  Note in the chart below that the three presidents who have shown the least variation in the rating over their years in office are the last three, Obama, Trump and now Biden.  The electorate is far less moved by day-to-day presidential hits and misses than they once were and they are far less willing to cross party lines to give even a temporary nod to the other side.

Polarization in America today is defined by negativity – we are driven much more by what we oppose than what we support.  The approval rating is no longer about presidential performance, it is about what we fear.  We perceive the stakes as enormous – it is not simply a matter of policy, it is the fate of the country that is perceived to be at stake.  Trump supporters hate liberal elites so much, and fear their ascension to and hold on power, that Trump could do anything – brag about “grabbing pussies,” pay off a porn star, try to overturn a fair election, steal classified documents, not to mention all the unnerving things he did as President, which earned him two impeachments -- and it would be either ignored entirely by his tribe, seen as fake news, or deemed (by the more elite wing of the party) as the price you must continually pay to keep the liberals out of power and America from disintegrating. 

The Democrats are, if anything, even more agitated about the entire Republican vision (Trump or no Trump) and its threat to America.  Even if Joe Biden had actually accepted fistfuls of dollars from Hunter Biden’s pals overseas, it would not shake the Blue view that Biden was nonetheless far, far better than any deep red alternative.  The stakes are too high to worry about much except controlling as many branches of the government as possible.

So, essentially, 40% of American voters will approve of any Democratic president, another 40% will approve of any Republican, and the other 20% hate the negativity so much that they will disapprove of any current office-holder once that honeymoon is over and the dust settles after the first flap.  Hence, all presidents going forward will have a 40-45% approval rating, as Trump and Biden have had, more or less, for the last seven years, and the figure itself is thus nearly irrelevant.  It does and will not really matter how a president performs; the approval rating merely reflects, as in everything these days, what uniform you are wearing.

(As an aside, politics is the only “consumer good” where you absolutely have to consume it.  You have to have a president, a governor, two Senators and a member of the House, whether you vote or not.  Imagine if all Coke and Pepsi did was run ads on how awful the other brand’s product tasted.  No one would drink soda.  But in politics, because someone will get elected, negative ads and negative coverage from the media you watch abounds – because it works.  The negative messages mostly are about stoking fear, and fear gets attention, drives ratings and often wins elections.  And thus almost everyone hates politics and politicians.)

So, we are left with a measure that is nearly set in stone, and not a reliable indicator of a president’s standing.  So why bother tracking the approval rating?  Maybe we shouldn’t, and at least eye it warily.  It seems obvious that, were this a few decades ago, Joe Biden would undoubtedly be in the 60%+ range by now.  The most important measures of peace and prosperity are on his side; his views on the leading issues of the day are the majority view, and the issues on which he is seen as “vulnerable” are fast fading in the wake of recent favorable data. 

This “set in stone” dynamic is also true of Biden’s ratings on various key issues (see chart below in the “Key Metrics” section).  Despite obvious improvements in inflation, GDP and unemployment in the past year, there has been no meaningful improvement in the rating of Biden’s economic stewardship, which remains stuck in the 39-40% range.

Biden’s only real problem is his age.  It is hard for his administration’s very real accomplishments and stances to break through when its own basic communications strategy is to hide Biden from sight, for fear that he might suddenly reveal himself as the next Dianne Feinstein or Mitch McConnell, the inevitable ravages of age suddenly thrust into public view.  And it does not help when Biden’s leading surrogates, such as Kamala Harris, Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer, are even less popular – far less so -- than Biden himself.  (The only one of them that is both popular and good at it, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, has had to deal almost non-stop with various transportation catastrophes, and thus he cannot continually be trotted out to articulate the administration’s positions on issues that are well beyond his own portfolio.)

There is a school of thought that Biden’s approval rating is a lagging indicator, that once the economic story becomes widely known (and more widely felt), Biden will experience the exact curve that Obama did in his run-up to reelection, pushing from the low 40%’s to at least somewhere close to 50%.  That could, indeed, happen, because Biden (unlike Trump) has been over 50% in his presidency and thus there appears to be a persuadable middle that only shows upside for Biden now.

But the view here is that we should stop obsessing about the approval rating, and focus instead on other data points.  The ones that matter most are the head-to-head polls between Biden and Trump, the presumptive nominees, in the four clear swing states:  Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona.  It is early in those states, and there have only been a few recent polls in each, but they clearly point to yet another very close contest at this juncture.

Stay tuned.



Having just trashed the approval rating, we now dutifully report it.  After all, it would be of note if Biden’s rating did indeed start to climb.  July was perhaps a very modest step in the right direction with the tiny movement from 41% to 42% in July.  Biden’s performance on the issues was generally unchanged.  The "Bidenometer" continues to improve, from 37 to 41, driven by increases in the Dow, consumer confidence and the GDP. 


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +41 for July, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 41% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +41, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +41 under Biden.

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