Do Approval Ratings Translate into Votes?

Not directly--but they do tell us a lot about what issues voters care about. And making voters care about something isn't always a good idea.

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I don’t put much stock in that most ambiguous of polling data fetishes, the approval rating. Measuring whether the voters sampled think that an officeholder is doing a good job, a bad approval poll potentially puts a politician on the edge of a precipice without full instructions about how to get off. The solution is, of course, to do something—anything!—that lots of people will “approve” of and not do something necessary that will be unpopular. George Gallup, the father of modern polling, invented the approval rating in 1937 to measure support for Franklin Delano Roosevelt before the 1938 election.

Today it is such a stupid category that last January, a sports blogging aggregator invited University of Central Florida football fans to submit their e-pinions about head coach Josh Heupel’s offense, so they could publish an approval rating for him (100% of fans approved of it.)

Yet…one is pulled towards the approval rating all the same because our political campaigns no longer end. Instead, like an endless sports season, media force-feed us data that we don’t really understand, cultivating the illusion that politics is about scoring points as you approach the “playoffs” in 2022 and 2024.

For example, the media is currently sounding the alarm about President Joe Biden’s approval rating, which is falling. Biden has seen about a nine-point decline over eight months. His numbers topped out at about 55% on January 25, 2021, when Biden had done virtually nothing but sign a lot of executive orders, and even a great many Republicans were relieved to see anyone but Trump in the White House.

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Biden’s approval rating has bobbled downwards ever since: it dropped just below 50% on August 16, when Kabul fell to the Taliban. On August 30, the day before U.S. flights out of Kabul ended, Biden’s numbers swapped, with more Americans disapproving than approving of Biden’s performance. Those graph lines have continued to separate: as of yesterday, 48.9 disapprove, 46. 1 approve.

Yet approval ratings, in and of themselves, may tell us very little about whether a President is actually doing a good job because it depends on how you ask the question. More importantly, since officeholders do many different things, approval ratings will have something to do with how controversial that person has become. In a 1995 article, three political scientists from Texas A&M argued that “approval” ratings hinge on whether voters care about the actual issues that the president is spending time on. In other words, if you pin changes in approval ratings to what is actually going on at the time, you can figure out what voters care about.

It’s also worth noting that this study was done long before politics moved aggressively online, which may make approval ratings more volatile. Why? Because the genius of modern political consulting is to use social media platforms, influencers, and digital marketing to make people care about things that they might not otherwise care about—or things that aren’t even real—and linking such issues to a politician is one way to drive approval ratings up or down. For example, false claims on the right in 2020 that Joe Biden is cognitively impaired implanted this idea in a portion of the electorate, which then produced numerous polls—also on the right—that portrayed as many as 70% of voters fleeing the Democratic nominee.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

But it’s also true that making people care about something can backfire, and this is where two of the early leading contenders for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination may have erred by leaning into culture wars issues like abortion, voting restrictions, critical race theory bans, and Covid-19 denial. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott didn’t need to do this to shore up their positions before their 2022 re-election campaigns. But they did need to do it to make themselves viable alternatives to Donald Trump in 2024.

It looks like both of them would have done better to beg Donald Trump to throw them in the briar patch. In early September, as Florida got sicker and local school boards fought to institute basic public health measures, DeSantis’s approval rating in that state dipped to below 48%. His disapproval rating has drawn even, fueled by voter discontent in both parties. Abbott’s approval rating among Texas voters also dropped under 50% last week for the first time. This is because, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer argues, Abbott has spent so much time currying favor with the far right that he has ceased to govern the state as a whole or even cultivate moderate voters in his own party. (One also wonders, given the Covid numbers in both states, if many of the people who used to approve of these guys are just dead.)

These men may still win re-election in their own states. However, Beto O'Rourke has signaled that he is ready for another statewide race in Texas, and a poll put former Florida Governor Charlie Christ atop DeSantis in early August. But the point of a gambit—a presidential nomination—may have failed. Instead, what is coming out of the culture wars in both states is grisly and divisive: increasing numbers of ill, hospitalized, and dead children.

It’s hard to think that, should either of them survive a primary campaign and become a nominee, the public health tragedies in these states will not play a major factor in a national campaign.

And you know that the first person to use it against them will be Donald Trump.

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Short takes:

  • The right cares about free speech so much that it organized a hate campaign against high school kids exercising who were exercising theirs. Sportswriter Dave Zirin checks in with the former coach of Seattle’s Garfield High football team, the first kids in the nation to support Colin Kaepernick by taking a knee. “What part of the process do you want to talk about?” Joey Thomas asked. “Do you want to talk about the part where they tried to fire me? The part where they tried to take my job away? The part where I finally resigned? (Lit Hub, September 20, 2021)

  • If you come for the king, you had better kill him, Donald. Michael C. Bender and Lindsey Wise at The Wall Street Journal report that the Former Guy, still fuming about Mitch McConnell’s rebuke after Just 6, is looking to take the Senate Minority Leader out. This strikes me as a win-win for Democrats.

  • If Trump succeeds in recruiting a challenger who can actually topple Kentucky’s Big Kahuna, he not only risks lopping off the head of the GOP’s canniest strategist in the Capitol. If he fails, he will reveal how politically inept he and his ragtag army are. September 19, 2021)

  • No more KKK at ASU. Last year, Alabama State University’s Board of Trustees took former Alabama Governor Bibb James’s name off a residence hall due to his Ku Klux Klan membership. Now the HBCU has renamed the building, this time “in honor of Civil Rights icon Jo Ann Robinson, a catalyst in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a former ASU professor.” Part of what makes this renaming special, in my view, is that it elevates an activist who isn’t in the textbooks, possibly making students curious about a mobilization that required the commitment and labor of hundreds of people. (Josh Moon, Alabama Political Reporter, September 19, 2020)

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