What Biden’s Approval Suggests About November

by Bradley Wascher March 21, 2024 · 5:10 PM EDT

Prediction: President Joe Biden will earn more than 38 percent this November.

Biden’s approval rating, which has been underwater since late summer 2021, hit a new low in the 538 polling average on March 12. Just 37.4 percent of Americans approved of the president’s job performance, while 56.5 percent disapproved — a net negative of 19.2 points.

While it's likely this particular dip was just statistical noise (Biden’s approval was already back "up" to 38.4 percent the next day) the cause for concern among Democrats is clear. According to 538’s tracking, Biden’s current popularity is the lowest of any modern president seeking re-election at this point in the cycle. The three presidents with the next-lowest mid-March scores — George H.W. Bush (41 percent approval in March 1992), Donald Trump (42 percent in 2020), and Gerald Ford (46 percent in 1976) — would all go on to lose in November.

There is an obvious connection between a president’s approval rating and their eventual share of the popular vote. Elections are often framed as a referendum on the incumbent, so if voters don’t think the president is doing a good enough job, they’ll be less inclined to grant a second term. Political scientists have studied this link seriously since at least the 1970s, and presidential approval continues to be one of the most reliable predictors of the final result in November.

But it’s only March, and a lot can change over the next seven months. Based on our own calculations using adjusted R-squared values, a president’s share of the popular vote is approximately 75 percent correlated with their approval rating in November, while March approval is less explanatory at 51 percent. That means the polls this spring probably won't be as predictive as the polls this fall. Actually, of the 12 presidents since 1948 who have run for another term (including Ford, Lyndon Johnson, and Harry Truman, who were not true elected incumbents), six saw a bump in approval between March and November — good for an extra 3 or 4 points on average.

As always there are caveats. First and foremost, the presidency is won through the electoral college, not the popular vote. And not only is our sample size small with just a dozen presidents, but polls were less abundant during many of those early administrations. In fact, Gallup — the organization with perhaps the most storied back catalog of survey toplines — traditionally did not even ask about presidential approval beyond June of an election year.

But for the purposes of this thought experiment, historical context helps. If Biden saw the same 4-point boost in popularity as previous presidents within the next eight months, his approval rating by November would rise to around 42 percent. While an improvement over his current situation, that would still only bring him in line with the one-term losers.  

Another prediction, though: Biden will earn more than 42 percent.

Nine of the 12 modern presidents who have run for re-election ended up performing better in the popular vote relative to their November approval ratings. And the three leaders who ran behind their ratings found themselves in very different circumstances from Biden: Johnson in 1964 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 both enjoyed ratings near 70 percent, so it makes sense that they would lose some ground on the actual ballot; Bill Clinton in 1996 had to grapple with a strong third-party showing from businessman Ross Perot that ate into Clinton’s vote share but not the electoral college result.

Across the nine modern presidents who ran ahead of their November approval ratings, the median overperformance was 2.5 points. Add that figure to our earlier back-of-the-napkin 42 percent approximation for Biden’s November approval, and we arrive at a hypothetical vote share of about 45 percent after rounding. To be clear, this would still be an exceptionally weak showing in today’s age of highly polarized elections: the last major-party nominee to finish below 45 percent was Bob Dole in 1996 (in a race that also featured a strong third-party candidate). This is one of the strongest reasons to believe Biden's support by November will extend beyond the high 30s. And even though we’ve purposely added the best-case boosts for Biden in each calculation here to demonstrate one potential path, other recent evidence corroborates that he has room to grow.

Zooming in to the 21st century, the two most recent presidents, Trump and Barack Obama, both experienced a bump in approval between March and November of their re-election campaigns. Moreover, each of the last three presidents, adding George W. Bush, went on to overperform their November ratings by an average of 3 points.

There’s no telling exactly where Biden will land this November, in terms of his approval rating or his share of the popular vote. Meeting the benchmarks set by previous presidents would still put him just a hair behind where he needs to be to win. But elections don’t happen in a vacuum, and not all disapprovers are the same.

A Pew Research Center survey from late January found Biden to be particularly unpopular among young people (27 percent approval) and Hispanics (32 percent). Importantly, those same groups also seem to have soured on the president in general election polling, despite historically backing Democrats by wide margins. What’s more, only 61 percent of Democrats in the Pew poll said they approved of Biden, although it’s unlikely that the other two-fifths of the party’s supporters will stay home or vote for Trump.

Biden also still has the opportunity to win over the 20 percent of respondents overall — including the approximate one-quarter of self-identified moderates — who said their disapproval was “not strong” rather than “strong.” If history is correct and the president does see a modest boost in popularity between now and November, it will likely be among these groups.

Regardless, it helps to have a majority of Americans on your side. As Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup put it: “Historically, all incumbents with an approval rating of 50 percent or higher have won re-election, and presidents with approval ratings much lower than 50 percent have lost.” And even in the best-case scenario, Biden will likely have to figure out how to buck the trend of other underwater presidents.