Mellman: Understanding Democrats' present and past in polling

Mellman: Understanding Democrats' present and past in polling
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Projecting the present into the future is easy, but often a mistake, especially in dynamic environments characterized by rapid change. Errors compound when even the present is murky. 

Just how dreary is Democrats’ political present? 

The RealClearPolitics poll average puts President BidenJoe BidenPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks State school board leaves national association saying they called parents domestic terrorists Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases MORE’s approval rating a rather dismal 10 points underwater, while 538.com pegs the deficit at a smaller but still frightening, -5.

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A closer look reveals the muddle. Three of the most recent trustworthy national polls suggest President Biden’s approval rating ranges between even and 3 points more positive than negative. 

Are things already changing? 

We don’t know yet, and that’s part of the point. 

To assess future possibilities, consider how we got where we are and how those central realities could change over the next year.

The first culprit is the delta variant. In the spring, Americans were celebrating rapidly declining COVID-19 case levels, and, partly as a result, those who approved of the president’s performance outnumbered those who disapproved by 12-14 points. 

The rise of the delta variant changed that. 

But infections are falling again, and if, a year from now, the pandemic seems largely over, President Biden and Democrats will be stronger.   

The economy’s a second factor. 

Politicos wait with bated breath for each months’ jobs numbers as if they determine votes. The overwhelming evidence is they don’t. 

In fact, a graph plotting unemployment rates against election outcomes would resemble a Jackson Pollock painting — with splotches of color randomly distributed around the chart, clearly demonstrating the absence of a consistent relationship.

The single most politically potent economic indicator is not unemployment, inflation, or the deficit, but rather change in per-capita real disposable income, a less heralded statistic that measures the average amount of inflation-adjusted money individuals have left after paying taxes. 

Capturing the impact of unemployment, inflation, salaries and government transfer payments, as well as taxes, it’s not a number people know, or even know about; rather, it’s one they feel every time they decide whether to buy or to do without.

Equally important, it measures change. We are, as calculus geeks would say, a first-derivative nation; we care more about change than about levels, focusing on where things have been headed, rather than on where they stand.

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan injected vast sums into the economy. Disposable incomes shot up and the president’s approval rating stayed up.

But that sudden, short-term burst in incomes meant an equally sudden decrease in the rate of increase in the months following, and that’s what we are living through now. Real disposable incomes actually declined in September — and predictably, the president’s approval rating is suffering.

Which brings us to the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Build Back Better.

Right now, voters can be forgiven for wondering how competent Democrats really are, as two central priorities languish while party factions fight it out. Internecine quarrels are rarely a good look for voters — and this too is taking a temporary toll on Democrats’ political standing. 

But if both these bills pass, two things will happen. Democrats will look like legislative geniuses: Never before will such vast social transformation have been instituted with such narrow congressional margins.  

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Second, trillions will be coursing through the economy and put in people’s pockets, lifting incomes, without the cliffs in the Rescue Plan. 

Both the party’s improved image and voters’ improved economic circumstances will redound to Democrats’ credit.

(Of course, if the bills don’t pass, disaster awaits.) 

Afghanistan also helped create the current reality. Voters liked the policy, but fairly or unfairly, shook their heads over the performance. 

Foreign policy rarely remains salient to voters if Americans are not in harm’s way, so one can expect this issue to fade, especially if it’s overshadowed by improvements in COVID-19 and the economy, and by Democrats’ legislative achievements.

Election Day 2022 may look quite different from today. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.