This suggests a scary outcome for Democrats. When voters turn against a president, they usually vent their anger by voting out his down-ballot allies. Moreover, Biden is the glue holding his party together: If he becomes less popular, progressives may feel emboldened to criticize him, splitting his party when it most needs unity.
So what happens next? It’s too early to know for sure — but the data suggests a short-term rebound for Biden, with the possibility of long-term problems for congressional Democrats.
The best news for Democrats — and it isn’t much to brag about — is buried in some seemingly terrible data.
In August, Afghanistan garnered more media coverage than in any other month of the past decade. That coverage has been virtually all bad for Biden, continuously reminding Americans about the speed of the Taliban takeover. As a result, Biden’s poll numbers have dropped.
The good news for Democrats: Americans won’t keep seeing these reports forever. Many voters may stop thinking about the war once the news cycle moves to a different topic. At that point, Biden will still face problems — such as covid-19 and its variants, worker shortages and inflation — but some of his supporters will likely return to the fold.
Yet even if the short-term trend improves, the long-term trend is ominous for him — and great for the GOP.
As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report has written, a president’s approval rating typically slumps in the summer after inauguration. Voters start with high hopes, but as presidents make tough choices and deal with crises, their optimism fades. Ronald Reagan lost ground after a recession in his first term, and Bill Clinton’s popularity plunged after a sloppy start. Presidents can recover from these episodes, but early battles leave scars.
That’s bad news for Biden. At its best, his approval rating rarely exceeded 55 percent — meaning that, even if he regains some ground this fall, he will likely be stuck in the high 40s or low 50s. That’s an uncomfortable perch in a closely divided electorate.
Generic congressional ballot polls were virtually tied before Kabul fell, according to RealClearPolitics, and if Biden’s approval remains well below 50 percent, Democrats will struggle to build the mid-to-high single digit lead they’ll need in such generic surveys to hold the House. The next generic ballot polls will give us a better read of the Democrats’ predicament.
Biden still has some advantages. The midterm elections are more than a year away. That’s a lifetime in politics, and a spring or summer 2022 recovery from the latest covid wave could lift his party’s showing. Biden has some agenda-setting power — if he advances a big, even historic, spending bill or mounts a popular counterattack on the new Texas abortion law, his support among his base will solidify. And the GOP could overplay their hand by further obsessing with mythical election fraud.
Afghanistan by itself won’t doom Democrats in 2022, but it has pushed them into the danger zone.