A rough week for Biden. How much will it affect Democrats in November?

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary,
President Biden makes remarks at the White House Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn on July 12 in Washington.

WASHINGTON – They say that bad news often comes in batches, and that was the case for President Joe Biden this past week: a bleak new poll, another gloomy inflation report and a legislative setback. As he traveled through the Middle East, the home front remained on fire politically.

The grim poll came from the New York Times and Siena College. The three worst parts were: Biden’s approval rating registered at 33%; just 13% of Americans say the country is heading in the right direction; and 64% of Democrats say they would prefer someone else as the party’s nominee in 2024. On the other hand, he was three percentage points ahead of Donald Trump in a 2024 rematch.

The economic report showed prices rising 9.1% year-over-year, a four-decade high. It was the latest reminder of how stubborn this supposedly transitory inflation has turned out to be and why it continues to be cited as the top issue for voters as they think about November’s midterm elections. Gas prices have gone down recently but perhaps not enough to affect voters’ attitudes.

The legislative setback sounded familiar. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., decided to put a halt to ongoing negotiations over a scaled-down version of Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Manchin balked over the president’s desire to spend money to combat climate change. A year ago, that larger bill stalled when, yes, Manchin said he couldn’t go along with it. Democrats hope something on health care, including lowering prescription drug costs, can pass eventually. Whatever emerges, if it does, may not impress voters as much as White House officials had hoped.

It’s easy to interpret all this as further evidence that Democrats are heading toward a shellacking in November’s midterm elections. The political climate remains more than worrisome for the party in power. With Republicans needing to pick up just five seats to take control of the House, most Democrats are conceding that they will be in the minority in the House and possibly the Senate starting in January.

The rub comes on the question of how big that new Republican majority might be. Here the forecasts are more clouded. Biden’s approval ratings alone suggest a banner year for Republicans, and some in the GOP are expansive in their predictions. But how much are perceptions of Biden connected or not with the decisions some voters will make about their choices in November?

One finding in the Times-Siena poll that didn’t get much attention was voters’ preference for the outcome in House races. The poll found that 41% said they preferred to see Democrats in charge after the November elections compared with 40% who said they preferred a House under Republican management. Among likely voters, Republicans led 44% to 43%.

The RealClearPolitics average of what pollsters call the generic ballot question – a longtime measure that asks voters whether they would vote for the Republican or the Democrat in their House race – shows the GOP currently with an advantage of 1.9 percentage points.

Alan Abramowitz of Emory University analyzed 27 such polls conducted since June 1, which showed Republicans with a 2.5 percentage-point edge. Then he separated them into those that have a record of being friendly toward Republicans and those that are generally more neutral. The Republican friendly polls showed a GOP advantage of 7.5 points. The others put the Republican edge at 0.4 points. Democrats do even better in the averages of polls taken since July 1, or after the Supreme Court ruled on abortion.

Democrats generally need to have a clear lead in the polls to feel comfortable about their prospects, as they did in 2018 when they took control of the House. In 2010, Democrats were at about parity with Republicans or even slightly ahead on this question in Post-ABC News polls, and the GOP still had a huge victory. The more recent polls suggest there is some fluidity in the electorate that could affect the size of Republican gains.

Clearly a lot of people, including many who voted for Biden in 2020, have lost faith in his leadership. His approval rating among Democrats in the Times-Siena poll was 70%, which is below what should be expected in such a polarized country.

The reasons for voters’ discontent are many. Inflation gnaws at family incomes; a president bears the brunt of that concern. The pandemic appears to be having lasting effects on many aspects of life and work, adding to the unease. The sense that government doesn’t work is widespread. All of that is working against the Democrats.

But for many swing voters, the prospect of Republican control may not be so appealing either. As Nate Silver put it recently, “Voters have good reasons to disapprove of Biden without wanting Republicans in Congress.”

The GOP is still under the thumb of former president Donald Trump, who has persuaded many in his party to espouse the lies he continues to spread about the 2020 election. The Jan. 6 committee hearings have brought heightened attention Trump’s central role in the effort to overturn the election.

The prospect of a new House GOP majority focused on retribution rather than governing might not thrill swing voters who already have a sour attitude about the way Washington works. At the state level, Republican election-deniers are seeking office and threats to democracy persist.

Beyond that, other issues could provide some help for Democrats in competitive House races. The Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion will affect the votes of some and perhaps many voters who disagree with the court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Mass shootings and GOP resistance to tougher gun laws is another factor that some suburban voters might consider.

If this is a wave election year, Republicans should be confident about taking control of a Senate that is now divided 50-50, even if the map is not as favorable for them as in some years. But they have flawed or vulnerable candidates in three states where they are defending seats: Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, J.D. Vance in Ohio and incumbent Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. They also are at risk of losing an opportunity to pick up a seat in Georgia due to the erratic performance by GOP candidate Herschel Walker.

Republicans still could flip Democratic-held Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada. Perhaps their flawed candidates will prevail if the Republicans’ wave is overpowering. But the GOP has not put strong candidates forward in the places they need them most.

Biden being a drag on Democrats this fall is without question, and he’s done nothing over the past few months to change that. If anything, his standing has weakened. If this election is purely a referendum on the president, Democrats will suffer and perhaps suffer significantly.

The question remains how much. And on that, Republicans are not doing much to help themselves and Trump could make it worse. GOP leaders prefer an election focused on Biden, not on the past and not on Trump. The former president may not give them their wish. If he were to announce his candidacy for 2024 before November, as he is hinting, that would put him back into the election conversation in ways that could crowd out other messages from the GOP.

Democrats hope the House hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol will have the effect of dampening enthusiasm of some Republican voters. They also hope that the Roe decision will generate more enthusiasm among their base. It’s too early to know the answer to either side of that equation. Perceptions of the president seem set. Whether other factors now in play will marginally improve the Democrats’ standing is the question.