Why is Biden losing support from Independents?
Lingering Covid problems, economic fears, cultural divides, and Afghanistan withdrawal sour Independents on the new president
One year from now the traditional post-Labor Day election sprint for control of Congress will be in full swing. Luckily for President Biden and congressional Democrats, the election is not happening this November. Given the steady decline in the President’s overall job approval this summer – down 10 points from a high of 55.7 percent in early April to 45.7 percent in early September according to the RealClearPolitics polling average – the Democrats would surely lose control of one or both legislative houses.
The most worrisome aspect of Biden’s dropping popularity is the serious decline among Independent voters – those voters who turned against Donald Trump and drove Biden’s narrow victory in a handful of key battleground states in 2020. Morning Consult/Politico polling from early August, pre-Afghanistan, shows net approval of Biden among Independents (percentage approve minus disapprove) dropping from +25 at the start of his term to -5 by this summer. Democrats remained overwhelmingly positive about Biden, with slight declines in approval, while Republicans became even more negative about him over this same period.
Independent voters are notoriously fickle and hard to please. In general, they can’t stand either political party and maintain a basic neutrality in their evaluations precisely because they don’t like political leaders of any stripe and hold a range of views that are not easily represented in the bifurcated ideological landscape of contemporary American politics. These voters come in different political hues, but they tend to be economically populist, culturally moderate to conservative, and deeply concerned about security and protection on the home front.
Not surprisingly then, as seen in the August Morning Consult/Politico research, Independent voters seem increasingly skeptical of Biden’s handling of cultural issues like immigration and guns, economic issues like jobs and energy policy, and national security. They tend to give him more credit on the coronavirus pandemic, although the Delta surge is now causing complications on this issue as well.
And despite the administration’s arguments that its Afghanistan withdrawal was a historic success, Independent voters appear unimpressed for now. NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist polling shows another 10-point decline in Biden’s job approval among Independents following the chaotic exit from America’s 20-year war.
The sum total of this research is that Biden and Democrats now face massive headwinds with these all-important voters ahead of midterms that will be decided in districts and states that either voted Trump or narrowly voted Biden. Democrats therefore need to face up to this stark reality and start taking steps to shore up their standing with Independent voters over the next few months.
Step One. Pass and defend the infrastructure bill and a “pro-worker, pro-family, pro-America” budget. No one cares about the ugly intra-party battles to create and pass Biden’s “Build Back Better” budget. So, stop talking about which faction has what power over others and start defining this massive legislation as a huge potential boon to American’s wellbeing and our national standing. If Democrats need to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill first and whittle down the reconciliation to its core essentials to help workers and families, then do so.
It’s critical to deliver this agenda and promote an optimistic project of national renewal and family security: More jobs. Stronger families. Better communities. Successful businesses. A roaring national economy to take on China.
Step two. Make the withdrawal from Afghanistan a positive turn for America and not a depressing defeat. The Biden team seems flummoxed by the public response to its Afghanistan withdrawal – i.e., overall support for ending the war plus very poor marks for execution of the final act. But it’s not complicated to figure this out: Americans don’t feel especially proud about our defeat and running for the hills at the last minute while asking the Taliban for support in getting out.
So rather than offering up more defensive speeches and attempts to browbeat voters into believing something is a stunning success that seems uncertain and half-baked to the naked eye, Biden should move towards a consistent and honest outlining of how the administration is going to fight terrorism globally and shift towards strategic competition with China and Russia. Americans want to know that the Biden team takes terrorism seriously and is ready to stand up for our emerging national interests.
Step three. More “No malarkey”, less culture war fillers. Voters gave Biden the nod in 2020 because he promised a one-two punch of restoring American values and upholding a no-drama, basic competence approach to governance. He famously said that you wouldn’t hear much from him, and Americans seemed very happy for that approach after the never-ending aural assaults and tweeting of Trump.
Now the nation finds itself once again embroiled in irresolvable culture war battles over things like Covid, masks, schools, crime, immigration, and abortion. There’s nothing anyone can do to make these things go away. But there is a potential strategy for dealing with them in a manner that might be more appealing to Independent voters who often diverge on these issues.
Biden and Democrats must stand up for their own values on these fronts, and those of their party, but also continue to express a desire to turn down the temperature of our culture wars. The easiest way to do this is to say we won’t bend on things that are critical to national success and values – such as the need for vaccinations or the constitutional rights of women – but we accept that people think differently on many fronts, that these issues are serious to people, and that the goal is to maximize the freedom and rights of all people.
Show Independents and other Americans that Democrats care most about protecting people from Covid, getting the economy back in order, and ensuring basic civil rights and liberties for all people — and not telling people how to live or think.
The overall story should be simple, and values-based: We want a strong nation economically with freedom, dignity, and equal rights for all people, regardless of their backgrounds and views.
Of course, this will be hard to do given the partisan, media, and activist incentives to fight one another all the time over serious but often dumb political divisions.
But if Biden and Democrats want a fighting chance ahead of the midterms next year, they need to recapture the center of American politics and put forth a pragmatic and strong vision for national renewal that fits the perspective of Independent voters and middle-class Americans who ultimately will determine its outcome.