Democrats and Meh Voters

For the first time in a long time, Presidential approval numbers and voter preferences aren't' aligned.

Cook Political Report’s Amy Walters contends “Democrats [are] Winning Over the “Meh” Voter.”

A big reason we pay so much attention to a president’s job approval rating, even in a midterm election when the president isn’t on the ballot, is the significant correlation between voter opinions of a president and their vote choice in an election. Suppose you think the president is doing a good job. In that case, you are almost certain to vote for a candidate from his party. In contrast, if you dislike the job the president is doing, you are equally certain to vote for a candidate from the other party. 

This parliamentary type of voting has only gotten more pronounced over the last 20-30 years. 

So much so, noted Ron Brownstein in a recent CNN column that in 2018, “Republicans lost all 10 of the Senate races in states where Trump’s approval rating registered at 48% or below; in every major Senate race that year, the exit polls found that at least 90% of those who disapproved of Trump voted for the Democratic candidate, except in Florida, Indiana and Michigan, where 89% did.”

I would argue that this reverses causality. People who strongly support a President are overwhelmingly his partisans and vice-versa. That’s been especially true since 1992, for a whole host of reasons. Very few Senate races are competitive in November; the dominant party primary is the real election.

This year, however, Democratic Senate candidates have been consistently outpolling Biden’s job approval ratings in their states. And, when it comes to the House, the share of voters who say they would vote for a Democrat for Congress is anywhere from 1 to 8 points higher than the percentage of voters who say they approve of the job Biden is doing. For example, the most recent Quinnipiac survey showed Biden’s job approval rating at 40 percent, yet 47 percent of voters said they were supporting a Democrat for Congress in November. 

In other words, many voters who are unhappy with Biden are nonetheless committed to supporting a Democratic candidate in November.

So, that’s interesting. My guess is that this is a function of the Democratic coalition being frustrated by Biden’s policy priorities and the fact that most of the blue sky initiatives simply didn’t have the votes to pass the Senate. So, they’re unhappy with Biden’s job performance but still united in their hatred of Trump. So, in that sense, they’re “meh”—but they were never going to vote Republican.

In the Pew survey, 37 percent of voters said they either strongly or somewhat approved of the job Biden was doing in office. Not surprisingly 93 percent of those who strongly approve and 86 percent who somewhat approve say they are voting Democratic this fall. Among the 43 percent of voters who give Biden “very unfavorable” marks, 82 percent of those voters say they are supporting a Republican for Congress.

But, among the 17 percent of voters who say they “somewhat disapprove” of Biden, 43 percent say they are planning to vote Democratic this fall, compared to 29 percent 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. 

Is this just a function of Trumpism being seen as a more exigent threat than garden variety Republicanism was in the past? I mean, I’m in that category. There’s a lot I disagree with Biden on and I’m happy to see parts of his agenda fail. Yet I’d almost certainly vote to re-elect both of my Democratic US Senators were either up for re-election this cycle. (Mark Warner is next in the chute; he’s up in 2024.)

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 percent of the electorate said they somewhat disapproved of the job President Obama was doing. More than half of those voters (55 percent) said they planned on voting Republican that fall, compared to 29 percent 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. 

Again, I think Trumpism has simply created a firewall. It’s one thing to be “meh” about Joe Biden and quite another to be “meh” about election deniers, fascists, white supremacists, and QAnon nuts. Indeed, my tepid endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016 was titled “Meh Hillary.”

The most recent Quinnipiac survey showed similar a similar dynamic. In that survey, Democrats are leading the congressional generic ballot by four points (47 percent Democrat to 43 percent Republican). Among those who just “somewhat disapprove” of Biden, Democrats have a two-point advantage (41 percent to 39 percent). 

A pollster doing work for a non-partisan organization that is not involved in electoral politics shared some of their data with me. That survey also found Democratic candidates were getting a significant share of the vote from those who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden. Among the 11 percent of voters who say they “somewhat disapprove” of Biden, Democrats have 33 point lead on the generic ballot. 

In other words, maybe the way to look at this gap between Biden’s job approval rating and the generic ballot isn’t to say that Democrats are outperforming Biden, but that Biden is under-performing Democrats. 

I don’t think that’s right, other than in the sense that his approval numbers are lower than the likelihood of Democrats winning a given election. But the crucial thing is that I’m pretty sure that Biden himself would outperform his approval numbers were he running for re-election against Donald Trump or a Trumpist Republican nominee.

Walters seems to agree

There’s plenty of reason to think that a good chunk of these “somewhat disapprovers” are Democrats. The pollster who shared the non-profit survey with me said their survey showed these voters to be overwhelming Democratic and ‘skew young.’

before pivoting

They are also much less committed to their November vote. In the Pew survey, 28 percent of ‘somewhat disapprovers’ are undecided about their vote choice this fall. In the Quinnipiac survey, 20 percent of somewhat disapprovers are undecided; twice as high as the overall percent of voters. 

Moreover, writes Washington Post political analyst Henry Olsen, history suggests that Democrats are going to have a hard time winning a plurality of these somewhat disapprovers this fall.  “Unless Biden’s job approval ratings tick up appreciably, his party will need to win a plurality of the vote among weak Biden disapprovers to have a shot, both nationally for the House and in each closely contested Senate race,” wrote Olsen. “The president’s party, however, has lost among this group by at least 20 points in every midterm House generic ballot exit poll since 2006. And in Senate exit polls, the president’s party normally loses by similarly large margins. Repeating anything close to that performance in November would doom Democrats across the board.”

For now, congressional Democrats are winning over those voters who are mostly ‘meh’ about Biden. Keeping those voters on their side for the next two months is a bigger – an unprecedented – challenge.

Again, I think this is mostly wrong. The “meh” folks are definitely not voting Republican. They’re not “meh” about Trump. The question is whether they’re sufficiently outraged by Trumpism (and things like Roe being overturned) to actually get out and vote. And, given that voting is easier than ever in most states, thus requiring very little effort, I tend to think that more of them than usual will.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2022, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    IMO, this an illustration of the Heinlein Electoral Principle: there’s always a candidate worth voting against.

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  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    So, they’re unhappy with Biden’s job performance but still united in their hatred of Trump.

    Let’s get past this emotional blah blah blah about hating Trump, shall we?
    He came into office as a co-conspirator in campaign finance fraud (for which his co-conspiring attorney did time in jail) and with the aid of Comey violating DOJ rules, and with help from Putin.
    He sought that aid from Putin, welcomed it when it happened, and then lied about it. This is all well documented in the Mueller Report, the Bi-Partisan Senate Report, and the Stone Trial Transcript if you need to refresh your memory. Just recently Manafort himself admitted to passing internal campaign data to Kilimnik, a Russian Intelligence Asset.
    Trump abused the power of his office in an attempt to bribe a foreign official to interfere in our election.
    He bungled the pandemic response and a number of studies show that hundreds of thousands of Americans died needlessly because of it.
    He then staged an attempted overthrow of our Government, that culminated in an attack on our Capitol and threats to the lives of elected officials.
    And now we find out that he has stolen this nations most strongly held secrets and, when confronted about that, lied about it.
    These are facts, James. And if the Biden administration fails to hold Trump accountable for any of this – in effect holding him above the law – then yes it will affect Biden’s approval rating. Because this is America and no one is supposed to be above the law. Emotions have nothing to do with it.

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  3. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy:

    IMO, this an illustration of the Heinlein Electoral Principle: there’s always a candidate worth voting against.

    Heinlein may have come up with it first, but it basically aligns with what political scientists call negative partisanship, one of the dominant forces in American politics today. I believe it’s a big part of the reason for the high number of indies who are indistinguishable from partisans in voting behavior.

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  4. Skookum says:

    Hot topic. Here’s a take from Oregon.

    Oregon’s unaffiliated voters: more partisan than you might think by Randy Stapilus

    The sector of the nonaffiliated, in contrast, has grown by more than half in the last decade.

    A variety of reasons may account for this, beyond dissatisfaction with the major parties. Political science professor Paul Gronke at Reed College pointed out in 2019, “There are at least 300,000 new registrants since 2016 because of (the Oregon Motor Voter Act), and 80% or more of these did not respond to a postcard allowing them to affiliate.”

    In Oregon as a whole, nonaffiliated simply means voters who didn’t join with a party. It doesn’t mean they vote a lot differently from those who do.

    Amy Walters has focused on the key question, but I’m think we need to drill down to the underlying question:

    What do non-affiliated GOP voters view as existential threats to their best interests, and will they cross party lines to vote for Dems, thus bucking voting norms?

    Unless Fox and Epoch Times turn on Trump, here in Harney County, Oregon, I doubt voters will cross party lines, because that is, for many, the fount of truth.

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  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Skookum:

    What do non-affiliated GOP voters view as existential threats to their best interests, and will they cross party lines to vote for Dems, thus bucking voting norms?

    The other day, Greg Sargent at WaPo, interviewed Bill Kristol, asking him about his anti-MAGAt organization. Kristol told him that the goal is to peel away 5% of the voters that would normally vote R. By peel away, he specified that they either stayed home or better voted Dem. He reiterated that he’s not in love with the Dem program, but views them as democracy promoters, while R’s aren’t.

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  6. Kylopod says:

    @Skookum: I would caution against equating “nonaffiliated” voters with the “meh” voters discussed earlier. The article you linked to is talking specifically about voters who don’t officially register with a party. That can be due to a number of reasons, and as I already mentioned and as we’ve discussed many times, supposed nonpartisan voters often in practice vote with a particular party just as reliably as self-identifying party members. Additionally, the decision whether to affiliate with a party is going to be affected by factors such as whether the state parties allow open primaries or not.

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  7. Andy says:

    I guess I don’t see what the big surprise is. Trump performed worse than the GoP did down-ballot in 2020, so the notion that there can be a significant mismatch between a President’s popularity and partisan brand popularity isn’t anything new.

    The “meh” voters are normies who mostly have a bias toward one side but aren’t in the tank. The key strategy, IMO, is appealing to their interests enough to get them to vote and vote for you while simultaneously not pissing off the base or creating a counter-narrative and backlash that increases the voter turnout for the other party or causes significant groups of voters to swing, as we saw in 2016.

    Back when we had coherent political parties, they were able to do this reasonably well. In the current environment, where the loudest and often dumbest voices get the most attention, and there is no central coordination, much less control, this is all but impossible.

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  8. Kylopod says:

    @Andy:

    Trump performed worse than the GoP did down-ballot in 2020, so the notion that there can be a significant mismatch between a President’s popularity and partisan brand popularity isn’t anything new.

    I think that is less than meets the eye. There was a record-low number of congressional districts that voted for a different party for president and House. The end result was that Dems lost a net 13 seats, which is high for a party that simultaneously wins the presidential election, but it wasn’t due primarily to a mismatch in how each district voted.

    Also, even in those districts and states where there was an apparent mismatch, it wasn’t necessarily due to voters simultaneously backing Biden and a Republican candidate. In Georgia, for example, David Perdue got more votes than Jon Ossoff in the first round (but fell just short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff) even as Biden won the state at the presidential level. I looked into the numbers and found that Biden got nearly 100,000 more votes than Ossoff, but Trump got only a few hundred more votes than Perdue. What this suggests to me is that the mismatch there wasn’t due to very many Biden-Perdue crossover votes, but rather to a large amount of voters who backed Biden then simply didn’t bother to cast a vote for any other office (or at least not for Senate), while Trump voters more reliably voted Republican downballot. I don’t have direct evidence on how widespread this phenomenon was across the nation, but I suspect it was a factor in even the small number of states/districts where there was a mismatch in which party won at different levels.

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  9. Skookum says:

    I would caution against equating “nonaffiliated” voters with the “meh” voters discussed earlier.

    @Kylopod: I think the article Oregon-centric article I linked to actually supports your view. Appreciate the clarification between NAV and Meh voters, however.

    My real point is that the only way to move Meh voters to vote for Democrats is to change their perception of existential threats to their well-being. It will be difficult to influence voters whose world view is informed by Fox and the Epoch Times–a real issue in rural Oregon.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: While not discounting any of that, Trump managed to inspire a pretty significant emotional reaction before any of that was known—not just in Democrats but even among the more traditionalist wing of the GOP. And “meh” is an emotional reaction, not a policy analysis. Hatred is stronger than meh.

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  11. Andy says:

    @Kylopod:

    I haven’t looked up the numbers in a while, but I pretty clearly remember that GoP House candidates generally performed better than Trump in 2020. I agree there were probably few crossover votes, so that is not the reason, but that is hard to measure with aggregate data.

    In Georgia, in particular, there were about 30k people who voted in down-ballot races but did not vote for President. A substantial number of those were likely Republicans who supported Republican down-ballot candidates but not Trump and simply didn’t vote, which very likely cost Trump the state.

    Similar dynamics happened in 2016, but third-party voting was a much bigger factor. The huge numbers of support for third-party candidates for President were almost certainly driven by dissatisfaction with Clinton and Trump. Down-ballot, third-party candidates didn’t do nearly as well. So lots of people voted partisan down-ballot and then third-party for President. And in 2016, we also saw similar discrepancies in votes for various offices that showed a lot of people voted for down-ballot elections but didn’t vote at all in the Presidential race.

    A similar dynamic could certainly happen in 2024 – given our broken primary system, I think it’s quite likely.

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  12. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Joyner:
    Because we all knew what he was before he was elected. There was no surprise. We didn’t know exactly what was coming, but we knew it would be a complete shit-show.
    Spoiler alert – we were correct.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I can’t decide whether this is an actual thing or only a thing for people who need to be able to file 2000 words by press time. One problem with identifying “true” independents is that secret ballots make it hard to know how many people really switch parties from candidate to candidate, election to election. I suspect the old saw about an activity where 10% of people admit to doing it and 90% lie about it probably holds true here in the other direction–100% of people claim to do it and 90% lie.

  14. Kylopod says:

    @Andy:

    I haven’t looked up the numbers in a while, but I pretty clearly remember that GoP House candidates generally performed better than Trump in 2020. I agree there were probably few crossover votes, so that is not the reason, but that is hard to measure with aggregate data.

    Then we’re more in agreement than disagreement, but I just think it’s important to put in perspective how historically low the mismatch (in your words) was between Trump and downballot Republicans–especially compared with the previous two reelection races in the 21st century. I don’t have all the data about every local race at hand, but just off the bat in 2004 and 2012 there were a bunch of states that voted completely differently for president and Senate. And that was considered totally normal at the time.

    I think what’s changed isn’t just the Trump cult, though that’s certainly part of it. I think there’s a lot more sense among voters that every candidate (at least at the federal level) contributes to their party’s national agenda. The old model of “I like my Senator/representative because he or she brings home the bacon” is increasingly outdated.

  15. Andy says:

    @Kylopod:

    The mismatch may have been low, but it was significant enough to deny Trump Georgia’s electoral votes.

    If there’s one thing we’ve seen over the last couple of decades, it’s that relatively small numbers of votes in a few states can make a big difference in outcomes. While I agree that it does seem like more people are probably voting on a party national agenda basis, there are also frequently enough people who aren’t doing that to affect outcomes.

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  16. DK says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Let’s get past this emotional blah blah blah about hating Trump…These are facts, James. And if the Biden administration fails to hold Trump accountable for any of this – in effect holding him above the law – then yes it will affect Biden’s approval rating. Because this is America and no one is supposed to be above the law. Emotions have nothing to do with it.

    I’m guessing Professor Joyner mostly agrees with the facts as you lay them out. But if those facts don’t make a person emotional, that person’s morals are disturbed.

    Let’s get past this outdated, cosplay-macho notion — rooted in sexist stereotypes — that having and showing emotion automatically means you’re irrational and invalid. Our insistence on performative dispassion is hurting American men and boys in profound ways.

    Emotions are necessary — especially in face of the semi-fascist MAGA cult’s attempt to take down our democratic republic. Emotions, channeled in a healthy way for the right reasons, are good. If more of us taught our boys how to process their emotions rather than suppress them, maybe they wouldn’t be violently attacking women and shooting up schools and stores so much.

    I don’t fully trust the intellect, ethics, or critical thinking skills of those who do not despise Trump with a righteous, emotional recoil.

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  17. DK says:

    @Kylopod:

    The old model of “I like my Senator/representative because he or she brings home the bacon” is increasingly outdated.

    Isn’t this why “All politics is national” is in vogue?

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  18. Kathy says:

    I still haven’t quite recovered from the 2016-induced distrust in electoral polls, but, FWIW, 538 now rates the odds Democrats will hold on to a majority in the House as 26%.

    That’s one chance in four. When the tracking began it was well under one in five.

    My inner gambler tells me not to bet on Team Blue to prevail. My inner philosopher reminds me optimism is as close to hubris as makes no difference.

    But those are the numbers.

    1
  19. Kylopod says:

    @Andy:

    If there’s one thing we’ve seen over the last couple of decades, it’s that relatively small numbers of votes in a few states can make a big difference in outcomes.

    But that isn’t really new–there are a lot of historical examples of that, both in presidential and other types of elections. I’d agree that close elections are more common than they used to be (particularly presidential), but they aren’t a new phenomenon.

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  20. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy:

    I still haven’t quite recovered from the 2016-induced distrust in electoral polls

    Believe it or not, the 2020 polls were worse than in 2016. And the 2016 ones weren’t appreciably less accurate than 2012 (in fact they were more accurate nationally, less accurate in terms of the states, but only slightly). The Massive Polling Error of 2016 is something of a myth. Remember the 538 article from a few days before Election Day, “Trump is just a normal polling error behind Clinton”? I think part of what contributes to the myth is that a lot of people believed Trump couldn’t possibly win, and with the help of confirmation bias, interpreted Clinton’s modest advantage in the polls as proof of their intuition. Also, the polls in 2012 and 2020 did more or less correctly predict the winner of the presidential election, even though the margin of victory was significantly off both times.

    Also, the 2018 polls weren’t bad. 538’s avg for the generic ballot was 8.6; the Dems ended up winning the House popular vote by 8.7. The Senate races had a number of upsets, but in both directions, so it was somewhat of a wash between the parties.

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  21. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    I believe it. I think I even mentioned it here, and got a mild rebuke.