What Democrats Can Learn From Joe Biden and Poll Numbers

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By Ketrin Agustine

What Democrats Can Learn From Joe Biden and Poll Numbers

Well, this week has been an emotional roller coaster. On Sunday, a New York Times/Siena College poll showed President Biden behind Donald Trump in a bunch of battleground states, sending Democrats into a tizzy. Then on Tuesday, voters handed Democrats a string of election victories — the kind they have enjoyed in election after election since Trump was inaugurated in 2017.

What’s going on here? Are the polls wrong? Are the Democrats strong but Biden weak? Let me offer a few thoughts:

Americans increasingly use polls to vent, not to vote. During the 20th century, when Americans were in a better mood about the state of the country, presidents generally had high approval ratings and broad support during their time in office. Since 2003, the national mood has grown unbelievably sour, and since 2005, sitting presidents have had underwater approval ratings during about 77 percent of their terms.

As the progressive political strategist Michael Podhorzer argues, a lot of this negativity is not a reflection on particular politicians. It is “indicative of broad and intense dissatisfaction with our governing institutions and political parties.” These days, when pollsters call people a year away from the election, they take the opportunity to lash out at whoever is in the White House. It’s their way of venting and saying they want change.

This does not mean that, when it comes time to cast ballots and actually pick a president, their preferences will be the same. “Americans know the difference between answering a survey and casting a ballot, even if the polling industrial complex and pundits don’t,” Podhorzer writes. George W. Bush and Barack Obama had periods of low poll numbers but still won re-election when voters had to make an actual decision.

Podhorzer notes that since 2017, there have been significant anti-MAGA majorities pretty much every time voters went to the voting booths. There’s a good chance that that anti-MAGA majority will still be there when voters go to the ballot box in 2024. After all, Trump’s favorability ratings haven’t gone up. They’re lower now than they were through most of his presidency — and are basically at the same low level as Biden’s.

Biden doesn’t have to become magically popular; he just has to remind the tens of millions of Americans who voted against MAGA multiple times before why they need to vote against MAGA again, just as Democrats did in 2020, 2022 and, to some degree, 2023.

The median voter rule still applies. The median voter rule says parties win when they stay close to the center of the electorate. It’s one of the most boring rules in all of politics, and sometimes people on the left and the right pretend they can ignore it, but they usually end up paying a price.

The Democrats’ strong showing in elections across the country this week proves how powerful the median voter rule is, especially when it comes to the abortion issue. Abortion was not always a great issue for Democrats. But it became one because of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the subsequent Republican legislation to severely restrict abortion. This year, Democrats and their supporters effectively played to median voters, with, for example, an ad in Ohio in which a father who grew up in the church castigated the G.O.P. for not allowing abortion exceptions for rape and the health of the mother, and one in Kentucky in which a woman who was raped by her stepfather noted that she would have had to carry the baby to term under the extreme Republican laws.

Dull but effective government can win, and circus politics is failing. The Trumpian G.O.P. has built its political strategy around culture war theatrics — be they anti-trans or anti-woke. That culture war strategy may get you hits on right-wing media, but it has flopped for Ron DeSantis, flopped for Vivek Ramaswamy, and it flopped Tuesday night on the ballot. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, did so well in Kentucky in part because he stayed close to the practicalities, focusing on boring old governance issues like jobs, health care costs and investment in infrastructure. He also demonstrated a Christian faith that was the opposite of Christian nationalism. As he told E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post, “For me, faith is about uniting all people. It says all children are children of God. And if you’re truly living out your faith, you’re not playing into these anger and hatred games.”

Remember that none of us know what the political climate will be like a year from now. Neither you nor I have any clue how some set of swing voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are going to see things in 12 months, or what events will intervene in the meantime. Nobody does.

It’s better to ask the simple question: Do I think Joe Biden is doing a good job? I look around and conclude that he is. The economic trends are good for average Americans. The U.S. economy grew at a torrid 4.9 percent annualized rate in the third quarter of this year, by far the highest cumulative, inflation-adjusted growth in the Group of 7. The prime age employment rate is near record highs and inflation is down to 3.7 percent.

Household debt is way down. The average family’s net worth increased by an inflation-adjusted 37 percent between 2019 and 2022. The gains were broadly felt: Income increased almost across the board, benefiting urban and rural people, homeowners and renters, white people and Black people.

The mood is so glum, many voters don’t yet perceive these improvements, reeling as they are from the recent bout of inflation. Will they come to appreciate all the positive trends this time next year? I have no idea, and neither do you. It can take a long time for perceptions to catch up with economic realities. The only thing we can do is put our faith in the idea that good policy deserves our support.

I spoke this week to Mitch Landrieu, who oversees Biden’s infrastructure initiative. It was like talking to someone from a saner epoch. He described hundreds of productive meetings he’s had over the past year with Republican and Democratic governors and mayors to get over 40,000 different projects off the ground — roads, clean water and all the rest. “It’s gone swimmingly well, it really has. This is not a conservative or liberal thing,” Landrieu said. And the scope is huge: nearly $400 billion has gone into investments. “When history renders its verdict, this will be comparable to Works Progress Administration, or the Eisenhower highway construction program or rural electrification,” Landrieu added.

I’m not saying this election won’t be close. Democrats don’t like that Biden is so old, and he’s not getting younger. I’m just saying he has a path to victory. As the former Obama adviser David Axelrod has been saying, Biden has to make this a comparison election — him versus Trump. And I’d add that he has to make this a prosaic election. It’s not which of these two men do you dislike least, it’s which set of goods do you want to buy: low prescription drug prices or higher ones, some student debt forgiveness or none, abundant infrastructure jobs or few? If Biden can make this about concrete benefits to everyday Americans, I suspect he’ll be fine.

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