Democrats Mull Biden's Value in Critical Midterms as Poll Numbers Tumble

With President Joe Biden's approval ratings going from bad to worse, Democratic candidates across the country face a difficult choice with midterm elections now just over a half year away: "Do you run with the president, or away from him?" as University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato put it.

That question has been on the table for a while — Biden's underwater approval ratings are nothing new — but last week it gained greater urgency, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials acknowledged, with the release of two new polls that were, as one senior committee staffer put it, "depressingly bad."

A new Quinnipiac poll, published April 13, put Biden's approval rating at just 33 percent. Just 39 percent approved of his handling of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. A CNBC poll released April 11 put Biden's approval rating at 38 percent, with particularly bad numbers on his handling of the economy — traditionally the most important issue in any election. With inflation soaring, 47 percent of the respondents rated the economy as "poor"— the highest number since 2012. Fifty-six percent expect a recession in the next year. Overall, Biden's approval rating on handling the economy dropped to 35 percent, down four points from the previous survey's level, with 60 percent disapproving.

"There is no [exaggerating] the pessimism in this survey. It is inescapable," said pollster Micah Roberts, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted the CNBC survey.

That puts Democrats, particularly those in competitive races, in a tough spot. Midterm elections traditionally are unkind to the incumbent party, but now Democrats are bracing for a possible disaster in November. The Real Clear Politics generic congressional ballot shows Republicans up 3.3 points. Biden last month said he intended "to be out there making sure we're helping all of those candidates. Scores of them have already asked me to come in and campaign with them, to go out and make the case in plain simple language as to what we've done, what we want to do, and why we think it's important."

Biden in North Carolina
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to guests during a visit to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on April 14, 2022 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Biden was in North Carolina to discuss his administration's efforts to create manufacturing jobs and alleviate the impacts of inflation. Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Now candidates really need to focus on whether they want to take the president up on his offer, said a senior official at the DCCC who was not authorized to speak on the record.

"You've got six months to go, and a lot of headwinds for the party. I think a lot of candidates, whether they be progressives or moderates, are going to want to 'localize' their races to the extent they can; try to separate themselves from the perceived problems nationally," the DCCC official said

For example, he said, a candidate from a district benefitting from the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden signed last fall should hammer that issue.

"Point to the bridges and roads and railways that will be fixed in your district, the jobs that will be created in your district," the DCCC official said. "Show voters what you've delivered. Emphasize the local benefits of something that got done in Washington." As to whether large numbers of Democrats are going to distance themselves from Biden, the DCCC official said, "I think some are, sure. You do what you've got to do."

Indeed, with the president's dismal numbers creating fear of a rout in November among Democrats, there have already been a few high profile presidential snubs. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams claimed a "scheduling conflict" and did not show up when Biden gave a speech on voting rights — Abrams' signature issue — in Atlanta in January. (Biden later got testy with a reporter when asked about it.) Long shot Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke preemptively ruled out a Biden visit, telling the Dallas Morning News, "I'm not interested in any national politician — anyone outside of Texas — coming into this state to help decide the outcome of this race." And incumbent Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, who narrowly won in 2020 and faces a tough reelection race in November, recently dodged the question of whether he'd welcome a campaign visit from the president, saying, "I'm focused on serving the people of Georgia."

More recently, the Biden administration has invited controversy — and infuriated some border state Democrats — by deciding to rescind what's known as Title 42, a Trump-era pandemic rule calling for the immediate expulsion of any migrants seeking entry into the U.S. at the border with Mexico. Republicans are already flaying the administration for failing to control the southern border, and now more migrants are likely to pour in when the rule is lifted in late May.

That decision infuriated Democratic Senator Mark Kelly, of Arizona, who is already in a tough race for reelection. Kelly issued a blistering statement criticizing Biden when the policy change was announced, and on April 7 joined a bipartisan group of senators introducing legislation to extend Title 42 until the administration offers a "comprehensive plan" to deal with the immigration crisis.

"We need a secure, orderly and humane response at our southern border and our bipartisan legislation holds the Biden administration accountable to that," Kelly told reporters. A Senate colleague of Kelly's affirmed to Newsweek that the Arizona senator is "around the bend angry about the Title 42 thing."

Some moderate Democrats, who like to claim Biden as one of their own, have so far been more receptive to the president's support during the midterms. U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, of Pennsylvania, who is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, attended a Biden speech on infrastructure in Pittsburgh in late January, and later posed for photos with the president. Lamb's presence was notable because two other Democratic candidates running for statewide office — including one of Lamb's rivals for the Senate seat — did not show up for the president's speech, offering the "scheduling conflict" excuse. Other moderates in tight races, including U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada, who according to the most recent poll trails narrowly in her race against former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, echoed Masto's sentiment that Biden is "always welcome" in their states.

Biden supporters warn that candidates trying to distance themselves from the president because of his poor poll numbers should tread carefully, arguing that, for most Americans, the president doesn't generate the visceral love-him-or-hate-him reaction that former President Donald Trump evinces in many voters. "Many [Democratic] voters still see him as a personable, decent, caring guy," Democratic pollster Jay Campbell said.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a longtime friend of Biden's, said that rank-and-file Democrats still care about the president and think it's important [for other candidates] to show up when the president is in town. "People end up thinking less of you for not showing up," Rendell told reporters recently.

That's the precise dilemma a lot of Democratic candidates now face. Party loyalty is nice, up to a point. But if Biden's ratings don't improve this summer heading into the fall midterms — a scenario that could happen, Democrats insist — more and more candidates are likely to try to take care of their own business, without the president's help. "That's just the nature of the game," said political scientist Sabato. "And after this long in politics, few people understand that better than Joe Biden."