When President Joe Biden’s approval numbers began to plummet in early August, driven by public disgust with the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan, hopeful Democrats suggested that as the news cycle moved on, Biden would recover.
It was a plausible theory. So far, however, there’s been no such recovery. As of late September, the RealClearPolitics average of job-approval polls has Biden at 45%, down from 53% as recently as late July.
Here in North Carolina, a swing state with a Republican lean, the president and his party remain in big trouble. A new survey conducted by High Point University’s polling unit has Biden’s support among registered voters at 41%. The John Locke Foundation’s latest Civitas Poll, taken in mid-August, had Biden at 42%.
We are, of course, a long way from the next election. Other presidential administrations have gotten off to rocky starts only to regain their footing later on. At this moment, then, more than a year before the 2022 midterms, it would be unwise to offer a firm prediction about outcomes. But it’s not too early to ponder these three big questions:
First, what best explains Biden’s tumble? There are many potential explanations. For example, the delta variant has spurred a new wave of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Fairly or not, the Biden administration is taking much of the blame, even as some of its preferred policies, such as vaccine mandates, enjoy majority support. (I oppose the Biden’s employer mandate on prudential, legal, and constitutional grounds, but I admit that many fearful Americans support it).
While public confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic has fallen, it remains one of the president’s strongest issues — by which I mean that the public is closely divided on it rather than clearly disaffected. In the High Point University survey, for example, 46% of registered voters approve of Biden’s performance on COVID-19 and 46% disapprove.
On other issues, there’s no such close call. Only 37% approve of Biden’s performance on the economy, with 52% opposing it. He’s also upside-down when it comes to shouldering the responsibility of the commander in chief (36% approval to 51% disapproval) and managing the Afghanistan crisis (26% to 59%).
Now for a second question more specific to our state: if Biden remains unpopular a year from now, can North Carolina Democrats avert electoral calamity by avoiding the party’s national brand and clinging more tightly to Gov. Roy Cooper? This has long been a tried-and-true strategy for Democrats in states such as North Carolina. Former Gov. Mike Easley, for example, cruised to reelection in 2004 even as former President George W. Bush won the state by more than 12 percentage points. Down the ballot, Democrats didn’t suffer the devastating losses one might have expected that year. Easley served as their “firewall,” as more than one Democrat told me after the 2004 elections.
In this respect, at least, Roy Cooper is no Mike Easley. Although he won reelection last year with 51.5% of the vote, Cooper’s support has dropped since then. In the High Point poll, he’s at 48% approval to 33% disapproval. In the Civitas poll, which screens for likely voters, he’s at 44.6% approval to 44.6% disapproval. In other words, the bottom certainly hasn’t fallen out for Cooper. But he’s not popular enough to wall off the state’s Democratic candidates from the Biden brand.
Here’s the final question: if the political climate doesn’t improve for Biden and the Democrats over the next year, is the GOP fated to achieve smashing victories? Not necessarily. Politics is about comparisons, not just plebiscites. North Carolina Republicans must recruit credible candidates. They must offer substantive ideas for building on past accomplishments and solving problems. And they must eschew conspiracy theories that may discourage their own voters from turning out, as happened in last year’s special Senate elections in Georgia.
Biden’s decline gives Republicans an opening. That’s doesn’t mean they can just stumble through it and expect a big gain.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.