[Editor's note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]
By Sean Trende
Real Clear Politics
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Quinnipiac University released its latest survey Thursday inquiring about President Biden’s job approval rating. It stood at just 35%, the lowest measured job approval of his presidency. To put this in perspective, the lowest poll reading Quinnipiac had for Donald Trump was 33%, and the lowest rating he ever received in any poll was 32%.
Of course, at RealClearPolitics our advice is to never read any one poll in isolation, but rather to average them to get a better view of the polling picture. That picture looks a little bit better for Biden, but not much: He registers a 41.8% approval in the RCP Average. This is up from his all-time low of 41.3% in late November of 2021, but only slightly.
This is important. Although the presidential election isn’t for another 2½ years, the midterm elections are fast approaching. In our increasingly polarized and nationalized politics, the single most determinative factor in midterm outcomes is the president’s job approval. With both the House and the Senate very narrowly split between the two parties, entering the 2022 elections with a president whose job approval at this level carries catastrophic implications for the Democrats. It isn’t accidental that, in the generic ballot (which asks which party individuals would prefer to control Congress), the Democrats’ current vote share is 42.8%, nearly mimicking Biden’s.
For a more precise sense of what this means, it may be useful to revisit the Senate model that I developed in 2014 and updated about a year ago for the coming midterms. It attempts to predict Senate race outcomes according to three factors: The president’s estimated job approval in a state, whether an incumbent is on the ballot, and whether the parties nominate “problematic” candidates (think Christine O’Donnell). This model has performed remarkably well over the past decade, predicting the actual outcome within a single seat in the four elections that have transpired since it was created, and always landing within its “error margin.”
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What does it tell us about 2022? Assuming the parties don’t nominate particularly weak candidates and there are no further retirements, a Republican-controlled Senate starts to come into the picture when Biden’s job approval falls to around 51% and becomes the most likely outcome at around 48%.
At 42%, the model envisions virtually no chance for Democrats to hold the Senate and predicts a loss of four seats as the most likely outcome. At 42%, the Colorado Senate seat could potentially come into play, assuming that Republicans produced a credible candidate (remember that a relatively unheralded candidate held Sen. Michael Bennet to a six-point margin in 2016).
Now, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if things get even worse for the Democrats that they will lose six or seven seats. There’s a realistic floor for political parties in elections where even the hardcore partisans begin to turn on the president but nevertheless vote for their party’s nominee in Senate and House elections. The classic example of this phenomenon is 2008, when President George W. Bush’s job approval fell into the 20s nationally. Despite this, Republicans managed to win Senate elections in places like Kentucky and Georgia even though Bush’s disapproval brushed up against 60% in both states.
Nonetheless, if the president’s job approval doesn’t improve, his party will find itself in dire straits in the midterms. The good news for Democrats is that there is still time for things to turn around. The bad news is that public perceptions of issues like the economy and the pandemic are relatively slow to do so; the clock is starting to tick.