How Joe Biden Is Like Mitch McConnell
Plus: The political interaction of abortion and inflation.
Mitch McConnell’s polling is never that great, and every few years, Democrats convince themselves he’s beatable. But he isn’t beatable. In 2020, Democratic candidate Amy McGrath raised $94 million to unseat him, and proceeded to lose to him by 20 points, despite his weak approval numbers.
The problem with polling about McConnell is there are two kinds of poll respondents who say they don’t like him: liberals who think he’s too conservative, and conservatives who think he’s a RINO. The latter group of voters isn’t going to back a Democrat — they’re overwhelmingly going to vote for him in the end, even if it doesn’t make them very happy, and that’s good enough for McConnell to win comfortably in a red state like Kentucky. His weak poll numbers are a mirage, and his political position is strong, because it’s impossible for his detractors to form an effective coalition against him.
I think something similar is happening with Joe Biden.
Cook Political Report editor Amy Walter wrote this week about a recent survey from the Pew Research Center (emphasis added):
In the Pew survey, 37% of voters said they either strongly or somewhat approved of the job Biden was doing in office. Not surprisingly 93% of those who strongly approve and 86% who somewhat approve say they are voting Democratic this fall. Among the 43% of voters who give Biden “very unfavorable” marks, 82% of those voters say they are supporting a Republican for Congress.
But, among the 17% of voters who say they “somewhat disapprove” of Biden, 43% say they are planning to vote Democratic this fall, compared to 29% who say they'll vote Republican.
In other words, those who are “meh” about Biden are voting for Democrats. This is not something that we've seen before.
In the last five midterm elections for which Pew had data, “somewhat disapprovers” of the sitting president have never been this supportive of his party in the upcoming election. In September of 2010, for example, 16% of the electorate said they somewhat disapproved of the job President Obama was doing. More than half of those voters (55%) said they planned on voting Republican that fall, compared to 29% who said they'd be sticking with Democrats downballot. In 2018, two-thirds of those who said they somewhat disapproved of President Trump said they were voting Democratic.
It’s not hard to imagine why Biden and his party would overperform among the “meh.”
One of the things that drew me to Biden is that he's incapable of creating a cult of personality. For better and for worse, people just don’t have the same emotional investment in Biden that they had in Donald Trump or Barack Obama.1 This is a trait that makes it more comfortable for a poll respondent to admit that Biden is underperforming his or her expectations, even while still remaining a loyal and ardent Democrat.
Of course, polls are just polls. And under normal circumstances, you’d worry about what this all means for turnout — voters who prefer Democrats but don’t care for how Biden is doing might not show up at all. But recent election results are bearing out what this Pew poll reflects: that the political environment for Democrats is materially better than what you’d infer from looking at Biden’s polling alone. And it’s worth considering the possibility that this phenomenon could occur into 2024: that Biden will run better in the horserace than his approval rating suggests, because he draws a material amount of support from people who don’t even approve of his performance.
The inflation-abortion interaction
In addition to the phenomenon of Democrats outrunning Biden’s numbers, it’s also the case that both Biden’s numbers and Democrats’ generic ballot polling have improved in recent months. And there are two obvious phenomena driving this shift: unpopular Republican efforts to prohibit abortion, suddenly made highly salient by the Dobbs decision; and greatly moderated inflation (actually running at 0% month-on-month in July) due to plunging gasoline prices.
I think it’s important to note these phenomena interact to make them more politically powerful than the sum of their individual effects. Falling inflation doesn’t just make Biden’s numbers on the economy somewhat less dismal. It also gives voters permission to shift their attention, at the margin, away from economic issues (which advantage Republicans) to abortion (which advantages Democrats). From June to July, the share of respondents telling Gallup economic problems were the most important problem facing the country fell from 40% to 35%. I am interested to see how this figure changed in August — Gallup hasn’t released “most important problem” figures for August, but they did report that their “economic confidence index” continued to improve in August: It bottomed out at -58 in June, rose to -51 in July, and then to -39 in August.
I agree with Kristen Soltis Anderson that it overstates matters to claim abortion is now the dominant issue in this election. However you ask poll respondents about what’s motivating them, it tends to be the case that answers about the economy add together to exceed any other coherently definable issue area, such as abortion, or even “abortion plus the Supreme Court.” But abortion is clearly rising in relative importance, in a way that is helping Democrats.
And there are reasons to think that shift is going to continue to benefit Democrats, heading into November and beyond.
Gazing into the future
Gasoline prices are continuing to fall, which means we’re likely to have a low inflation print for August (out next week) and pretty likely to have low prints through the election. There's also an easing of prices for materials more broadly — for example, the price of lumber, which went through the roof in 2021, is coming back to earth, and that's taking pressure off prices for goods. But most of the economy is services, and we're not yet seeing sufficient signs that service price inflation is easing.
If you look at core inflation — inflation excluding food and fuel — and also at the pace of wage increases, it looks like underlying pressures in the economy are more consistent with inflation stabilizing around 4-5% than 2%. So while inflation in 2023 is likely to be significantly lower than this year's, it won't be low enough to eliminate inflation as a political problem. It also won't be low enough for the Federal Reserve to declare victory: A persistent period of at least somewhat elevated interest rates is likely to be necessary to get inflation near 2%, and those elevated interest rates will create a drag on investment, growth, and job creation.
This is my significant medium-term, post-midterms worry about the economy for Democrats. Inflation will still look unsatisfactory after the gas price slide ends, and/or the necessary actions to tame that inflation will push the economy into a recession. It's a reason I've been annoyed about the student loan forgiveness plan (and the likelihood that it will increase how high the Fed will have to push rates) and why I've been urging the Biden administration to continue hunting for other levers that push the right way on inflation without increasing recession odds.
All that said, inflation is likely to be less of a problem in 2024 than it is right now, less of a problem in 2026 than 2024, and so forth.
As for abortion, it creates a political problem for Republicans that's a lot harder to solve than the inflation issue is for Democrats. It's not like Dobbs is going to create one abortion-influenced election and then voters will move on to the next issue. So long as Republicans are seeking to impose unpopular abortion ban policies and are actually able to implement them if in office, the issue is going to be a drag for the party.
Here's an analogy: What if "defund the police" activists had spent 50 years burrowing into the Democratic party, pushing officeholders toward widespread acceptance of that message and associated policies, but the issue wasn't that salient because they couldn't actually change policing policies — until one day, because of a court decision, they could? It would be a political disaster. But while it only took months for Democrats to start running screaming from the "defund" slogan, Republicans have built up decades of expectation among pro-life activists that the party is sincerely committed to their unpopular agenda. That makes it very challenging to get away from the stance. You could lose a primary because of it.
There are four ways Republicans could deal with being wrong-footed on this issue, none of them easy.
They could significantly moderate their abortion stance to a place reasonably appealing to the median voter. You're already seeing some Republican candidates doing this, with who knows what level of sincerity. But to work at scale, this would likely require them shifting — convincingly — to a policy like broadly permitting abortions in the first trimester. That would entail permitting something like 90% of the abortions that were being performed in the US prior to Dobbs, which would make it an extremely difficult compromise to sell to sincerely pro-life voters. And in future election cycles, they'd need to adopt this position before competing in a primary election.
They could change hearts and minds and convince many more Americans that abortion should be broadly prohibited. This would likely be even more difficult than shifting the party's stance.
They could find other high-salience issues to sharply change the party’s positioning toward a popular one. Like Matt Yglesias says, maybe they could endorse some tax increases on the rich. I don’t think this is a likely path for the party, and neither does he.
Or the Supreme Court could reimpose something resembling Casey. I suppose this might happen if Democrats do really well in the upcoming election and agree to pack the Supreme Court. Otherwise, don’t hold your breath.
All of which is to say, the political drag from the abortion issue that Republicans are facing in 2022 can’t be expected to abate on its own in the way the inflation issue likely will for Democrats.
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And how hard is it to conceive of the voter who somewhat disapproves of Biden’s performance but will turn out to vote Democratic this November and vote to reelect him in two years? Many of the Warren and Sanders voters who staff our major political publications fall into this group.