Why Biden & Co Beat the Polls

The conventional wisdom on mid-term elections is that the party in the White House loses seats. How many they lose is supposed to be highly correlated to the incumbent President’s poll numbers.

Yet, Democrats suffered only very modest losses–albeit with large consequences since their majorities were so thin–given that President Biden’s approval number was in the lower 40s, a number that historically suggested greater losses.

I think I can explain at least a big part of that: the polls missed something important. The classic question asks what the voter thinks of President Biden’s job performance. The choices offered are Very Satisfied, Somewhat Satisfied, Somewhat Unsatisfied, and Very Unsatisfied. They’ll usually take a “no opinion/undecided” if you offer it. Critically, the polls don’t ask why voters are unsatisfied.

Commentators assume, based no doubt on experience, that voters unsatisfied with the President are more likely to take it out on the party at election time. The more unsatisfied they are, the worse for the party. That logic fails in the case of Biden because a significant fraction of the unsatisfied voters think he is too moderate or insufficiently aggressive against Republican tactics. Those voters are never going to vote for Republicans. They may stay home, contributing to the extent that turnout matters, but if they do vote, they are going to vote for Democrats, and all the more so if the Democrat on the ticket seems like a real progressive rather than a triangulator.

This group probably shows up in all the polling groups: If you think Biden is not progressive enough, you might nonetheless say say you are “Very Satisfied” on the grounds that at least he’s not the other guy. Or, like me, you might say you are “Somewhat Satisfied” on the grounds that while Biden did some good things, I would have liked much more. I can easily see how some progressives might also say they are Somewhat or Very Dissatisfied to have their high hopes disappointed. Until we poll better, we’ll never know how this breaks down, but I’m certain this group exists, and that while not enormous it’s well sizeable enough to move the needle.

TL/DR: Democrats did better than expected because the way Biden’s approval number is measured ignores the existence of Progressives who wish Biden were different–but are never going to vote for Republicans.

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5 Responses to Why Biden & Co Beat the Polls

  1. Just me says:

    If might, I’d like to offer a different option: “Democrats did better than expected because the way Biden’s approval number is measured ignores the existence of [Centrists] who wish Biden were different–but are never going to vote for [Trumpists].”

    Basically, Biden ran as an anti-Trump, aisle-crossing, centrist, pragmatist and telegraphed that we could expect bi-partisan legislation and government during his term. Instead, we’ve seen his administration completely incapable of leading his party in the direction that he campaigned on. See https://thehill.com/homenews/sunday-talk-shows/3609643-maloney-defends-dccc-funding-trump-backed-gop-primary-candidates/; see also https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/29/us/politics/biden-democrats.html (“For an establishment politician who cast his election campaign as a restoration of political norms, his record so far amounts to the kind of revolution that he said last year he would not pursue as president”).

    I think that the Georgia election speaks to this. Compare the results of the two statewide elections. The republican candidate in the senate race is Trump-endorsed Walker. Although the major candidates will have to run again in a run-off, Walker lost the vote count to Warnock (D) by about 35k votes.

    On the other hand, Kemp (R) stood up to Trump’s Big Lie and thumped Abrams (D) in the governor’s race by around 300k votes.

    Kemp probably isn’t a true centrist. But in a post-Trump world, he feels like one. Biden’s natural base is centrists. Centrists are disappointed in Biden, but ultimately centrists won’t vote for the crazy Trump fringe.

  2. Just me says:

    The WSJ seems to agree.

    “Republicans succeeded in one of their top goals this year: They brought more of their party’s voters to the polls than did Democrats. But in the course of energizing their core voters, Republicans in many states lost voters in the political center—both independents and many Republicans who are uneasy with elements of the party’s focus under Mr. Trump.”


    • Used to be that the WSJ news column was very reliable; now less so.

      I find more telling the Cook Report, which reports mystification as to a fact that i find very telling. Here’s how they describe it in Democrats Winning Over the “Meh” Voter:

      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.

      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.

      I think what I’m suggesting explains the puzzle better: some significant fraction of the voters whom pollsters and analysts think were “meh” about Biden felt that way because they see him as too cautious or too conservative, not because they tended towards Republican policies.

  3. what's the difference? says:

    You can’t seem to see what is right in front of your face. Remember 2020? Remember all those rallies where Trump would fill stadiums to overflowing, while Biden would get 15 people in a parking lot? Of course you don’t. You just can’t see things that don’t make sense to you. So you believed that Biden won more votes than Obama and more than anyone in history! It must have happened, right!?

    Now you are pushing the idea that while every poll, and even the media, expected a red wave, during an unpopular presidency, a trashed economy, Trump still coming stadiums, Biden just looking confused and restoring to alienating half the voters, somehow Dems managed to beat history and do better than even during Obama. And you think there must be some explanation you can understand to explain it all.

    Here’s the secret: Politics is a form of organized crime. It is often in bed with actual crime, but it doesn’t need to be. It is about taking money from the world’s largest poor of it and distributing it. It happens at all levels. It does not require fixing things, just making sure the right people are getting paid. It doesn’t require illegal voting, just control of the machine. They made you hate Trump because he’s mean. He said mean things. He’s not presidential. He didn’t drink. He’s not an everyman. You hated him for that. But the real reason you were not supposed to like Trump was because he was not a politician. He was a possible informant He had his own money and was not interested in mine. That is a mortal sin in a world where everyone needs to kick up to the Big Guy and keep their mouth shut.. So you hated Trump like a good lapdog and we’re not the slightest bit outraged when the Federal Government refused to do his bidding, the military generals mutinied, and he was impeached for absolutely nothing rational twice, something that you’d scream about if it happened to another. You don’t mind that the Federal Government remained silent about Covid, while people were getting sick, to keep you from forgetting the impeachment. You did your duty and hated Emmanuel Golstrien as expected by the political bosses.

    And now you come on here, all wise and professorly to proclaim why the impossible happened. Lol. You think you are a part of a system that doesn’t involve your participation at all, and yet you feel you can explain it. Lol. This is why it will never change. The useful suckers that think it’s working can’t see what is right in front of them. You will dismiss this as some crackpot whatever. But I’ve been saying it for years, you’ve been ignoring it for years, and every election you put forth your clueless idea of what just happened.

    Wake up, Froomkin! There is no need to be so gullable!

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