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Biden’s Approval Rating Is Up. Will His Misplaced Classified Documents Bring It Down?


Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

President Biden still isn’t what you’d call popular, but he’s closer to popular than he’s been in some time. On Jan. 11, Biden hit a 44.1 percent approval rating in FiveThirtyEight’s average — his highest mark since October 2021. That was 3 percentage points higher than it was on Nov. 9, which isn’t a huge increase in the grand scheme of things, but in this polarized age where any movement in the president’s approval rating is rare, it’s a veritable Bidenaissance.

This is the part of the story where you expect me to explain why this is happening. Which is understandable, except it’s impossible to know for sure what’s behind this shift. One leading theory, though: It’s because inflation has been slowing down. Prices in December 2022 were just 6.5 percent higher than they were in December 2021, which was the lowest inflation rate in over a year. Gas prices, another highly visible metric of the strain on Americans’ wallets, also plummeted from an average of $3.80 per gallon in November to $3.32 per gallon in December. These seem like pretty compelling explanations, considering how closely Biden’s approval rating was tied to the inflation rate and gas prices last year. For example, when his approval rating reached its all-time low in July 2022, the inflation rate the previous month had been 9.1 percent, and the national average gas price had been $5.03 per gallon.

A multiple line chart showing the inflation rate and the average national gas price during 2022. A line chart showing President Biden’s approval rating is in the same timeframe, and how the rating’s all-time low in 2022 closely tied to that of inflation and gas price’s all-time high.
A multiple line chart showing the inflation rate and the average national gas price during 2022. A line chart showing President Biden’s approval rating is in the same timeframe, and how the rating’s all-time low in 2022 closely tied to that of inflation and gas price’s all-time high.

But is Biden’s luck about to run out? The discovery of a handful of classified documents from the Penn Biden Center and Biden’s Delaware home has generated arguably the first bad news story for Biden in months, and it’s fair to wonder whether it will reverse — or at least halt — his miniature political comeback. The few polls that have been conducted since these revelations suggest that Americans think Biden acted badly, and that could be dragging down his approval rating.

According to Quinnipiac University, Americans are aware of the story, and they’re taking it seriously. A combined 67 percent of adults reported that they were following the story very or somewhat closely, and 71 percent said it was very or somewhat serious — including 55 percent of Democrats. Worst of all for Biden, 60 percent of respondents (including 38 percent of Democrats) thought Biden acted inappropriately in the way he handled classified documents after leaving the vice presidency. According to YouGov/The Economist, Americans also believed 39 percent to 28 percent that Biden took the classified documents intentionally — although quite a few respondents (33 percent) weren’t sure. 

That said, it could have been worse for Biden. In the Quinnipiac poll, only 37 percent of adults said Biden should face criminal challenges over the matter. And in the YouGov/The Economist survey, they believed 40 percent to 17 percent that Biden had cooperated in returning the documents — though, again, a large share (43 percent) weren’t sure. 

By contrast, Americans believed former President Donald Trump hadn’t cooperated in returning the hundreds of classified documents that he took with him after leaving the presidency, 39 percent to 29 percent (with 32 percent unsure). Indeed, while Biden’s staffers returned his documents to the National Archives shortly after discovering them, Trump at least twice failed to turn over all the documents in his possession, prompting the FBI to search Mar-a-Lago last summer. Despite this, however, a plurality of respondents (40 percent) told YouGov/The Economist that Biden’s and Trump’s offenses were equally serious; only 28 percent said Trump’s was worse, and 15 percent said Biden’s was.

As for how the scandal may be affecting Americans’ overall views of Biden, it’s worth noting that both pollsters showed Biden with a slightly worse approval rating than they did in their previous poll. According to Quinnipiac, Biden’s approval rating among adults was 40 percent in December and is 36 percent now. And Biden went from 47 percent in YouGov/The Economist’s Jan. 8-10 poll to 44 percent in their Jan. 14-17 poll. This could mean that the revelations over these documents have cost Biden a few points of popularity. But the decreases could also just be statistical noise, as they are small enough to be within the polls’ margins of error.

Ultimately, it’s still too early to say with any confidence whether this scandal is hurting Biden politically. We’ll likely have a better idea once we get more than two polls asking about it, and we’ll also just have to wait and see how the story develops. How it is covered in the media and whether there are more shoes to drop could make the story land very differently, say, a month from now.

Other polling bites

  • The soaring costs of medical bills are dissuading a record share of Americans from seeking care. Recent Gallup polling found that 38 percent avoided medical treatment in 2022, a number that has doubled over the last two decades. Specifically, 27 percent of Americans said that they were delaying care for a somewhat or very serious medical condition, a number that rises to 35 percent among adults ages 18 to 49. And women (32 percent) were much more likely than men (20 percent) to report putting off treatment for a somewhat or very serious illness.
  • A majority of likely voters (70 percent) support the government having a refugee program, according to a Data for Progress survey published on Jan. 18. That number was highest among Democrats (86 percent), Black Americans (81 percent) and college-educated Americans (79 percent). Notably, even among groups least likely to agree, including Republicans (60 percent) and non-college-educated Americans (65 percent), a majority still favored a government-run refugee program. But at 89 percent, the share of support was highest among Americans who reported that they personally knew a refugee.
  • Morning Consult polling conducted Dec. 27-Jan. 1 found that most U.S. adults (64 percent) believe major tech companies have too much power. That breakdown was pretty similar among Democrats (67 percent) and Republicans (65 percent). The poll also suggested that Americans support breaking up huge companies to combat some, though not all, problems associated with big tech.
  • A plurality of U.S. adults (36 percent) thought that children having more independence would help kids’ mental health, per a Jan. 12 YouGov survey. Just a slightly smaller figure, 29 percent, said the opposite. That belief seems to fluctuate greatly by age: About twice as many 18- to 29-year-olds (42 percent) believed that independence would help mental health, compared with those over 65 (22 percent). (Talk about recency bias!)

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 43.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 51.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -7.9 points). At this time last week, 43.9 percent approved and 50.9 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -7.0 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 43.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 51.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -8.6 points.

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