What pollsters described as a momentary hiccup has in fact become a chronic decline. And Joe Biden’s job-approval crash has a particular inflection point, even though FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich tends to soft-peddle it in this analysis. The one sure point in all of the data is that Biden’s rebound never materialized, and instead his numbers have gotten worse — even as the crises appear to recede:
President Joe Biden spent the beginning of his term comfortably above water in the polls. On July 20, the six-month anniversary of his inauguration, his average job approval rating stood at 52.3 percent, and his average disapproval rating stood at 42.5 percent — numbers that were fairly representative of his first semester.
But that honeymoon period came to a halt in late summer. The delta variant of the coronavirus led to a surge in cases and deaths starting in late July, accompanied by renewed fears about the economy and inflation; by Aug. 15, Biden’s approval rating had dropped 2.3 percentage points (to 50.0 percent), and his disapproval rating had risen 1.3 points (to 43.8 percent). That same day, the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, completing a stunningly fast collapse of the country’s government following the withdrawal of American troops. The Taliban takeover, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, appeared to accelerate the decrease in Biden’s popularity. By Aug. 30, more Americans disapproved of Biden’s job performance than approved of it, and on Sept. 8, his approval/disapproval spread was 45.0 percent to 49.1 percent.
The inflection point is more obvious when one reviews the aggregated job-approval polling at RealClearPolitics. Prior to August 18, not one national poll put Biden at a negative approval rating — not a single one. After Biden’s abandonment of thousands of Americans to the Taliban became apparent a week or so later, almost all of the national polling shows Biden under water — and only one pollster has put Biden in positive net territory outside of the margins of error (Harris/The Hill, +5 twice). In contrast, nearly all of the negative results have been outside the MoE, especially the lates Quinnipiac at -13.
As for suggestions that the numbers were only temporary and related to COVID-19 rather than Afghanistan, well …
At the time, we theorized that Biden’s approval rating might recover before too long, especially once the news cycle moved on from the crisis in Afghanistan. After all, presidents’ approval ratings tend to revert to the mean, and fluctuations in former President Donald Trump’s approval rating were especially short-lived. But we’re now more than a month removed from Biden’s difficult August, and there have been no signs of a rebound in his approval rating. At the end of the day on Oct. 5, Biden’s approval/disapproval spread was 44.8 percent to 47.9 percent. That approval rating, in fact, is so far the lowest of his presidency.
Biden’s approval rating has failed to improve even as Afghanistan has faded from the headlines. According to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, from Aug. 12 through Sept. 1, the three major cable-news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) mentioned Afghanistan in an average of 1,320 15-second clips per day. From Sept. 2 through Sept. 30, however, they mentioned the country in an average of only 403 clips per day. (This is, however, still more often than Afghanistan was in the news before the Taliban’s takeover. From Aug. 1 through Aug. 11, the three networks mentioned Afghanistan in an average of just 56 clips per day.)
There is a big difference between policy-related polling hits and a serious loss of confidence. As I suggested a little over two weeks ago, these numbers strongly suggest that a confidence-crisis cascade has begun, similar to what happened to George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina. The disgrace of Afghanistan was so stark and undeniable, and Biden’s performance during it so obviously incompetent, that it has entirely recast the view of the electorate on Biden. In essence, it’s akin to the revelation that the emperor is wearing no clothes, and it’s a bell that’s almost impossible to unring once it has rung.
The only way to overcome that is to demonstrate competence elsewhere, if not superior leadership. Unfortunately, Biden just doesn’t have the skills for that, nor the self-awareness to realize that he’s screwed up in the first place. The cascade will certainly bottom out at some point because Democrats are too invested in his presidency to abandon Biden, but independents and never-Trump Republicans will likely never return until Biden gives them a very good reason to do so — one or more that can overcome the disgrace of Afghanistan. Good luck on that, and as long as Biden keeps siding with progressives on their massive tax-and-spend legislation, the more entrenched the cascade bottom will become.