Recent polling, at first glance, provides a somewhat out-of-focus picture of how Americans view Joe Biden: Seven national surveys released this month put the president’s approval numbers anywhere from 37% to 50%.
But digging into the underlying numbers reveals a clearer consensus across a number of areas – how high Biden’s negatives are, how his ratings have trended since taking office, and how deeply polarized they are.
A CNN poll conducted by SSRS and a CBS/YouGov survey released this month showed Biden at 50%, with an AP-NORC poll putting him at 48%. Quinnipiac University and Grinnell College/Selzer & Company surveys find him floundering in the high 30s. A few more, including Reuters/Ipsos and Gallup polls, land in the middle, with Biden’s approval at 44% and 42%, respectively. Although some of that difference may reflect the timing of the polls, that doesn’t seem to be the sole driver – several of the pollsters who’ve released multiple surveys this month suggest that the numbers haven’t swung too far in that time.
Notably, however, the polls provide a much narrower range in their estimates of how many people disapprove of Biden – all seven of those surveys put Biden’s disapproval rating somewhere between 48% and 52%. Instead, a good chunk of the variation has to do with the share of Americans who say they aren’t sure. Two of Biden’s worst recent polls, the Quinnipiac and Grinnell surveys, both found 12% saying they’re unsure about Biden’s job performance, or declining to offer an opinion. In the CNN, CBS and AP-NORC polls, by contrast, 1% or fewer didn’t weigh in.
Why are pollsters finding such different levels of uncertainty? A lot of it probably has to do with the way they’re conducted. Polls conducted using telephone interviews – including the Quinnipiac, Grinnell and Gallup polls, generally don’t read off “not sure” as a possible response to their questions, but their interviewees will sometimes volunteer it, anyway. Some pollsters push harder than others to prompt wavering respondents to share which of the options they’re leaning toward.
Among polls conducted online, as the other four surveys are, procedures can range from providing respondents with an explicit option to say they’re uncertain to all but requiring them to answer a question before continuing the survey.
Given that, one explanation is that these polls aren’t telling contradictory stories so much as one, somewhat more nuanced one, along these lines: About one-eighth of the public doesn’t hold particularly strong views about Biden, but if prompted, they’re probably lukewarmly positive on balance.
There are two more points on which recent surveys generally agree. First, there’s the overarching trends that have defined the Biden administration thus far. Most pollsters show Biden taking office with positive ratings and enjoying a brief honeymoon period, before seeing his net ratings drop late this summer and stabilize at a lower level this fall, leaving him with considerably less of a reservoir of goodwill than many of his predecessors held at this point. A number of state-level polls have also found Biden’s ratings sliding from their initial levels, including in blue states like Maryland and New Jersey.
Second, the surveys all drive home just how polarized views of the presidency have become, continuing a trend in which, over the past two decades, public assessments of the White House have divided along increasingly partisan lines. Gallup noted that the 88-point gap they measured between Republicans’ and Democrats’ ratings of Biden stands as “among the largest in more than eight decades,” trailing only the divide in opinions about Donald Trump. Across all seven polls, Democrats were on average about 75 percentage points likelier than Republicans to say they approve of Biden.