And to hear these Republicans tell it, the American people have come to agree with them about all that. This week, many of them have pointed to a claim that Harris is the most unpopular vice president at this point in her tenure in modern American history.
“Kamala Harris Is The Most Unpopular Vice President In 50 Years, Polls Show,” reads the headline at the Daily Wire, one of many conservative sites to aggregate the story.
“Congratulations, Kamala Harris, on this historic achievement! You earned it!” declared Breitbart.
“Least surprising polling data yet,” added the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), on Tuesday morning.
But is it even true? That’s far less clear than the victory dances would suggest.
The source of the claim is a story from the Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper. It reads in part:
Two recent polls both showed 46 per cent of Americans approved of Ms Harris, with 47 per cent and 48 per cent disapproving....The only recent vice president to have similarly poor ratings after six months was Mike Pence, but he was not "underwater".According to Gallup 42.1 per cent approved of Mr Pence's performance at that point, and 41.9 percent disapproved.
Introducing your first red flag. The difference between Harris’s and Pence’s approval ratings in these polls isn’t just statistically insignificant, given margins of error; it’s also way inside the margin of error. Basically, Harris is one to two points “underwater,” depending upon which poll you use, while Pence was effectively even. It’s also quite possible Harris’s numbers are really above-water and Pence’s were underwater. That’s how margins of error work. Any polling analyst worth their salt would avoid saying Harris was definitively more unpopular than Pence. But even if the difference were one to two points, does that make Harris a failure but Pence … not?
You can cherry-pick polls all you want if your aim is to play this game. The Telegraph highlighted two polls showing Harris’s disapproval rating slightly higher than her favorable rating (which is in keeping with most polls), and one that showed Pence in positive territory by the slimmest of margins. But what about other polls on Pence? A YouGov tracking poll showed his approval-disapproval split at 42.5-44.8 at the end of July 2017. Most polls around that time tested Pence’s personal favorability rather than his job approval rating, but the former was often underwater, too.
And indeed, the Los Angeles Times updated a (more thorough) look at the more-plentiful vice-presidential favorable rating polls this week and found — lo and behold — that Harris’s average is actually slightly better than Pence at the same point (though still within the margin of error). Harris’s net ratings were 4.1 points better.
Does this definitely mean people like Harris better than they liked Pence at this point? No. But would we use it to label Pence the most unpopular vice president in history at this point? Also no. They are very close.
As for their predecessors, both of the most recent VPs clearly trail behind. The most unpopular vice president (full-term) in modern history was Richard B. Cheney, but at this point in 2001 he was well above-water. Al Gore was also in strongly positive territory in mid-1993. Biden, as vice president, was still above-water in mid-2009.
Before then, though, it’s a bit less clear. Before Cheney, Dan Quayle was the modern vice president people most derided (though for different reasons). At this point in 1989, Quayle was less unpopular than Pence and Harris, with a Washington Post-ABC News poll showing his approval rating at 43 percent and his disapproval at just 22 percent. About one-third of people offered no opinion.
But this masked how little regard people had for Quayle. The same poll showed just 38 percent of people said he was qualified to assume the presidency, while 52 percent said he was not. And 43 percent went so far as to say it was a “mistake” for then-President George H.W. Bush to have selected Quayle.
This was at a time in which people were more apt to give politicians the benefit of the doubt, and Quayle seemed to benefit from that. There’s a reason presidents and vice presidents are now generally about evenly split, or worse, and have been for the last decade-plus; people are more unsparing in their reviews, and partisanship reins.
None of that means Harris is doing a great job, and the fact that her numbers tend to lag behind Biden’s is perhaps the best evidence that Americans are hardly happy with her. But that doesn’t mean she’s the most unpopular vice president in modern history, either. On that front, she’s got plenty of competition from her immediate predecessor. And her numbers so far are rather unremarkable for this day and age in politics.