The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lucky for Democrats, Democrats love Democrats

President Biden gives a thumbs up toward guests and staff as he boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on July 20. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last week, I wrote about the unusual divergence between President Biden’s net approval rating (bad!) and the Democratic Party’s position in congressional polling (not that bad!). The implications of that divide are important, pitting two historically good indicators of the outcome in November against one another. The congressional ballot numbers suggest Democrats will probably lose the House, but not by a wide margin. Biden’s approval, though, suggests that Republicans might as well start electing a new House speaker right now.

We’ll see what happens in November in November, of course, but it’s still interesting to think about. Which of those scenarios will actually unfold? Meaning, which is more important: the generic ballot question, or Biden’s low approval?

There are some signs that it may be the former, for an important reason: Democrats like non-Biden Democrats better than they like Biden.

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We’ve known this for a while, of course. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote about Biden’s sliding approval from his own party on Thursday, something particularly pronounced among younger Democrats. One reason, clearly, is that many younger Democrats disapprove of Biden because he sits to their ideological right. In polling conducted by Siena College this month, the vast majority of young Democrats said they wanted someone besides Biden on the presidential ballot in 2024.

But in November? They’re going to vote Democratic. (If they vote, which is a different issue.) And they are not alone.

Looking at the gap between presidential net approval (that is, approval of the president minus disapproval) and how the president’s party is faring in the generic ballot, we see that the gap between Biden and his party is far higher than at any prior point in the last 200 days of the past five federal election cycles. In 2014, Barack Obama’s approval toward the end of the cycle was significantly lower than the Democratic margin in the generic ballot, but 2022 is seeing an even wider gap than that. (And 2014 is not a year that Democrats should want to emulate.)

A central reason for that is that Democrats are more likely to say they plan to vote for Democrats in November than they are to say they approve of Biden. Polling from YouGov shows that in 2018 and 2020, the gap in Republican approval for Donald Trump was on average about 2.5 to three points away from Republican support for Republicans on the generic ballot. YouGov had a methodological error in polls this summer that means there’s no generic-ballot data, but the past two polls have shown an average gap of around 12 points between Democratic support for Democrats and Democratic approval of Biden.

These things are volatile, of course, and we can expect them to change. What’s more, there are good reasons to think the generic ballot is, in fact, not as good a predictor of electoral outcomes as it used to be.

Over the short term, though, Democrats can take some solace in the state of play. Democrats may not like Biden as much as they did past presidents, but they at least like generic Democrats.

That’s better than nothing.