Opinion: Biden’s job approval rating is abysmal; he might beat Trump anyway

File photo/The Associated Press / In this combination of file photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Collier, Pa., on March 6, 2018, and President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018.
File photo/The Associated Press / In this combination of file photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Collier, Pa., on March 6, 2018, and President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018.

There's bad news and good news for those who want to see Joe Biden win in 2024 (or who really just want to see Donald Trump lose).

The bad news is that in the era of modern polling, no president has ever won re-election with approval ratings as low at this point in their first term. For fairly obvious reasons, incumbent presidents generally need to get at least close to 50% favorability by election day to win. Biden's approval has been stubbornly low — around 40% in polling averages — despite an improving economy. Getting to 50% looks daunting.

The good news is that approval numbers may not matter.

You may have noticed that a lot of the old rules of politics have passed their expiration dates. It's important to note that none of them were ever "iron laws" so much as rules of thumb. Still, it's been a bad time to rely on those rules of thumb.

The truism "As goes Ohio, so goes the nation" — i.e., Ohio always backs the winner — didn't apply in 2020. The still widespread conviction that politics is all about raising money, and that donors have outsize influence to pick the winner, hasn't really been true for quite a while. Just ask Michael Bloomberg or Ron DeSantis. From 1888 to 1996, the Electoral College vote followed the popular vote. In 2000 and again in 2016 that didn't happen.

For decades, winning presidential and congressional candidates followed the rule that you swing to the base in the primaries and then tack back to the center in the general election. Barack Obama largely ignored that rule, and Donald Trump really ignored it, successfully.

This points to one reason why approval ratings may not matter as much as they used to. In a polarized electorate, most voters vote against the other party more than they vote for their own. A recent Quinnipiac poll finds that among voters who dislike both candidates, Biden has a commanding 13-point lead. If that holds, it could be all Biden needs.

A second reason why approval ratings might be unreliable: Trump is essentially running as a Republican incumbent. Normally, presidents who lose don't run again.

Presidential approval ratings have tended to be predictive because a re-election bid is a referendum on an incumbent's first term: Do voters want more of the same or change? But voters already know what a Trump presidency would be like — or they can be reminded with a barrage of negative ads the likes of which we've never seen. Trump left office with an approval rating of 34%.

But Trump's unfavorable ratings also are still higher than Biden's. Indeed, Trump has always had a high floor of support — about 34% — but also a very low ceiling, about 48%. Unlike Biden, Trump has never actually been popular.

In a general election, when partisans reluctantly "come home," basically to vote against the other party, Biden probably has a much larger pool of "hold your nose" voters to rely on.

The expiration — or temporary suspension — of other rules is relevant too. Republicans in 2022 were expecting a "Red Tsunami" given Biden's unpopularity and the struggling economy. Democrats did shockingly well — because they ran, in effect, against Trump and Trumpism and for abortion rights.

Biden is already opening a massive gender gap with Trump. Abortion surely explains much of it, although his trials for assaulting and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll, and for allegedly paying hush money to a porn-star mistress probably don't help. Attacking Taylor Swift, as his most ardent supporters have done recently, won't fix that.

All of that said, if you believe a second Trump presidency would be a disaster for the country, rerunning a very unpopular incumbent on the hunch that the old rules no longer apply seems like a risky bet.