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Mellman: Biden's approval & polling's problems

Mellman: Biden's approval & polling's problems
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With President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' Conservative group sues over prioritization of women, minorities for restaurant aid MORE reaching the 100-day mark, pollsters are back on the prowl attempting to discern public reaction to his performance.

Assessments appear contradictory. Slate told us “Biden’s 100-Day Approval Rating Is Better Than Trump’s, but Third-Worst Since Truman.” Not sounding very strong.

NBC sounded a rather different note, “At 100 days, Biden's approval remains strong.”

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ABC seemed to differ, “Biden's 100 days: Low-end approval…”

These varying evaluations result from both different numbers and different analytic perspectives.

Start with analysis.

Comparisons are critical in analyzing poll data, but one must always ask, “compared to what?”

Less positive appraisals of President Biden’s standing compare him to the full range of presidents past. President Biden isn’t enjoying quite the honeymoon his predecessors did.

He’s just nowhere near the 83 percent approval John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE registered 100 days in, nor even Eisenhower or Reagan’s 73 percent.

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Lest the obvious go unsaid, however, that’s not really a meaningful comparison for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with Joe Biden and everything to do with the partisan sclerosis that has deadened the responsiveness of the body politic to both personalities and polices.

In earlier times, some Democrats could find something to like in Republican presidents and vice versa. Partisans may’ve been a little easier on one of their own and harder on a president from the opposing party, but 58 percent of Democrats approved of George H. W. Bush, and even more of Reagan, after their first hundred days, compared to only 13 percent of Democrats and Republicans who felt that way about Trump and Biden respectively.

Biden’s more modest overall approval rating reflects the hyper-polarized environment in which we live.

Comparing his approval to those of presidents past misses the animating ethos of our politics. Comparing it to what he needs to win reelection or help his party in 2022 is more reasonable.

But just what is Biden’s approval rating?

Honestly, it’s hard to say.

Once upon a time, it was easy. Gallup polled frequently with little competition and, while it may have been right or wrong, Gallup’s approval rating was accorded canonical status by scholars and pundits alike.

With the proliferation of polls has come a panoply of numbers, rather different from each other.

Of the dozen polls out now, three pegged President Biden’s approval at what may look strong—between 57 percent and 61 percent. Four seemed lower—47 percent to 51 percent. Five surveys were in-between, ranging from 52 percent and 54 percent.

Fourteen points from best to worst is a large spread.

Why so different?

Having read this far, you’re probably primed to suggest partisanship—or more technically, differential nonresponse—is the culprit.

Republicans, it’s said, for reasons psychological, sociological, or both, are less willing to participate in surveys and therefore under-sampled by pollsters.

But this cannot be the whole story: polls that have President Biden scoring higher do not all interview fewer Republicans.

Biden’s strongest showing came in a Hill/Harris poll that gave Democrats a mere 1-point lead in party identification.  

Biden’s second and third worst showings were in Quinnipiac and ABC/Washington Post polls that gave Democrats solid 7 and 9-point advantages.

If under-sampling one party or the other doesn’t wholly account for the differences, what does?

One influence are the responses of those pesky independents who look very different from each other, depending on which poll you choose to consider.

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Harris tells us 66 percent of independents approve of Biden’s performance and NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters put the number at a nearby 61 percent.

On the other end of the spectrum, Quinnipiac says Biden’s approval, among the same segment, is vastly lower at 40 percent, while Fox says a similar 42 percent.

In short, Biden’s approval rating among independents is all over the place.

Pollsters are pretty consistent in telling us how Democrats and Republicans feel about President Biden (love and hate him, respectively) but disagree on how many Democrats and Republicans there are in the country and on how independents regard the president.

The problems plaguing polling persist.

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.