President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting at the White House on February 22, 2022.
CNN  — 

President Joe Biden is facing historically low approval ratings among independents, a trend that threatens Democrats in November’s midterm elections if he can’t reverse it by then.

Although the number of truly independent swing voters has declined over the past half century, they can still provide the margin between electoral victory and defeat at a time when the two party coalitions are so closely balanced. And after moving toward Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 elections largely because of their distaste for Donald Trump, independents are now giving Biden job ratings in both state and national polls nearly as low as they ever provided Trump.

Independents “swung heavily against Republicans in 2018 and 2020 because they hated Donald Trump,” says Dick Wadhams, the former Republican state chair in Colorado. “Now these same unaffiliated voters are looking at the guy in the White House, Democrats in Congress, Democrats in the state legislatures, and I don’t think they like what they see.”

After the frequent promises of “transformative” leadership during his first year, Biden’s more meat-and-potatoes State of the Union address – with its emphasis on such centrist themes as funding, rather than “defunding,” the police – struck many analysts in both parties as a reset with those less partisan voters. Some national polling and other analysis since the speech suggest that the address, along with Biden’s visibility leading the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, may, in fact, be generating a second look for him among some of them.

During the speech, “there were a variety of places where Democrats, independents and Republicans were traveling together in their responses in a way that is really heartening” for Biden, says Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who observed the reactions of a “dial group” of voters to the remarks.

Still, most strategists in both parties agree it will take time, and sustained real world gains on inflation and the pandemic, for Biden to climb out of the hole he’s fallen into with independents, especially because so many of them say in recent polls that they do not consider him a strong leader. While Biden still has time to recover among them by 2024, Republican pollster Glen Bolger says the President faces much longer odds of a significant rebound before November’s midterm elections. Over that time frame, Bolger argues, “it’s hard for independents to move from where they are to even a mixed rating of the guy.”

Given the tightening correlation between voter attitudes about the president and their choices in House and Senate races, that’s a daunting prospect for Democrats. Their best chance of avoiding a wipeout among independents this fall may revolve less around improving their view of Biden than rekindling their doubts about Republicans – particularly their ties to Trump.

Exactly how many voters qualify as true independents unaffiliated with either party is a matter of sustained dispute. In Gallup polling, about 4 in 10, and often more, adults have identified as independents since early in Barack Obama’s presidency. In the Edison Research exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations, the share of voters who identify as independents has varied only between 25% and 30% in every election in this century.

But party operatives and political scientists agree that most of those independents are, as the saying goes, partisans who just don’t want to wear their team’s jerseys. After sorting out the self-described independents who lean reliably toward either side, Gallup consistently records a little more than 1 in 10 adults as fully independent. The Cooperative Election Study, a large-scale survey conducted by an academic consortium, likewise characterizes about 7% to 10% of voters as truly independent from both parties. Others put the number slightly higher: CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta says the network’s latest national survey identified about 1 in 6 Americans as truly unaffiliated with either side.

Who are independent voters?

Independents don’t entirely fit any one demographic or ideological profile: They include both well-educated voters who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative (probably the dominant image) as well as plenty of non-college voters who are the opposite. In fact, the composition of who identifies as an independent changes from election to election as events nudge voters in and out of allegiance to the two major parties: The share of self-identified independents, for instance, who called themselves conservative was much higher in the 2010 GOP landslide than in the sweeping 2018 Democratic midterm gains, according to exit poll data provided to CNN by Edison. The voters who identified as independent in 2018 were also younger and much better educated than in 2010.

Compared with a generation ago, almost all campaigns in both parties have reduced their focus on persuading independents or swing voters and shifted more toward mobilizing their base supporters. But somewhat paradoxically, because each side has done so well at turning out its base, support from independents still often constitutes the tipping point in states or House districts closely balanced between the two sides.

“Even though deepening partisanship has reduced the number of swing voters, the narrow margins of our recent national elections has made these voters more important than ever,” the veteran Democratic analysts William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote in a recent paper for the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. “This reality will dominate national politics until one party breaks the deadlock of the past three decades and creates a decisive national majority.”

Exit polls of House elections over the past four decades provide one measure of that tipping-point role. The party that won more independents in the exit polls also won the national House popular vote in every election since 1986, with the sole exception of 2004, when House Republicans narrowly lost independents but still won more votes nationally because of the surge in GOP turnout that President George W. Bush engineered that year. The winning party carried independents by double-digit margins in each recent year with a big congressional swing: the major Democratic gains in 2006 and 2018 and the Republican sweeps in 1994, 2010 and 2014, exit polls found.

That’s the foreboding backdrop for Democrats assessing a flurry of new state and national polls showing Biden facing a huge decline among the broadly defined group of independent voters (which includes those who lean toward either party). In 2020, the exit polls showed Biden carrying 54% of independents and beating Trump among them by 13 percentage points; the Pew Research Center’s validated voters survey found only a slightly narrower margin for Biden. He roughly matched that vote with a 51% approval rating among independent adults in an April 2021 CNN poll, his high point among them in office.

But the latest CNN national poll, conducted by SRSS, put Biden’s overall job approval rating among independents at just 36%, with 64% disapproving. The most recent national surveys by Gallup, CBS and Fox also put his rating with them around that level; pre-State of the Union polls by ABC/Washington Post and NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist were even worse, with each showing only around 3 in 10 independents approving. A post-State of the Union Marist poll showed his approval with those voters improving to nearly 4 in 10, but that still left about 6 in 10 of them disapproving.

By historic standards, these are very low numbers with independents. In CNN polling, Biden’s standing with independents is only slightly above the lowest job approval the survey ever recorded among them for Trump (31%) or Obama (32%), according to Agiesta. Biden’s standing with independents in the Gallup survey matches Obama’s low point, though it still exceeds the nadir for Trump (30%) or George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, each of whom fell into the twenties at points.

State polls tell the same story. The 2020 exit polls found Biden winning 53% or 54% of independent voters in two key swing states he carried – Georgia and Wisconsin – and more than 60% of them in a third, New Hampshire. But the most recent public state surveys in Georgia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin each put his current approval with independents at only around 1 in 3 or less.

Biden is also scuffling with independents on other measures. In the latest CNN survey, just 33% of independent adults said his first year had been a success. Only 3 in 10 gave him good grades for handling the economy and just a little more than a third rated him positively on responding to crime. In the ABC/Washington Post poll, only 3 in 10 independents called him a strong leader; that number was only about 1 in 4 in the Fox survey.

Why did this happen?

Strategists in both parties generally agree that the same three dynamics have ground down Biden’s standing with independents, though they differ on the relative emphasis they place on each.

• One is ideological backlash. “I keep coming back to the idea that he ran as a centrist and he’s governed as a progressive and he’s betrayed the electorate, particularly in Arizona,” says Charles Coughlin, a Republican public relations and political consultant in the state.

• The second is doubts about Biden’s personal capacity for the job, measured in those recent surveys showing that roughly three-fifths of independents say they do not consider him a strong leader.

• To both parties, though, probably the key driver of his decline is dissatisfaction with the country’s overall direction, particularly on inflation, the lingering disruptions created by the coronavirus and, particularly in larger cities, crime and homelessness.

Yair Ghitza, the chief scientist at Catalist, a prominent Democratic targeting firm, expressed an opinion common in both parties when he told me that views among independents change more based on current conditions in the country than do opinions among more hard-core partisans. “Most of the time you are going to see independents moving more than the strong partisans,” he says.

Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University political scientist who’s a co-director of the Cooperative Election Study, agrees that voters not fully attached to either party typically respond more than partisans to shifts in current events. In the November 2021 Cooperative Election Study annual survey, Biden’s approval rating among the voters the poll characterizes as true independents plummeted to just 25%. While that’s an extremely low number, Schaffner points out that only rarely did more than 40% of these true independents approve of either Obama or Trump.

“It’s likely the case that some true independents are always voting for the lesser of two evils, so it’s not unusual for independents to be dissatisfied with the president they have voted for in the past election,” he says. “The fact that they are true independents means they don’t like either party much anyway.”

While Republicans have been outraged and Democrats frustrated and demoralized by the big ideological congressional battles that have derailed Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic plan, many independents have seen the entire struggle as disconnected from their most pressing concerns, many analysts agree.

“They are not so ideologically” engaged, says Coughlin. Instead their view is, “I want to see it work. I want to see the border work; I want to see our country be strong again. I want to see the economy work; I want to see inflation go down.”

These attitudes are translating into scary early numbers among independents for Democrats in several polls. In the ABC/Washington Post survey, independents gave Republicans a 14-percentage-point lead when asked which party they intended to support in November’s election. For perspective, that’s roughly the level of advantage among independents in the exit polls that Republicans amassed during their 1994 House landslide and slightly bigger than the Democratic lead in 2018.

Can Democrats turn things around?

Can Democrats dig out of this hole by November? Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster based in Colorado, a state with a large number of independent voters, sees three big imperatives for the party among them.

• One is for Biden to regain at least some of the ground he’s lost. “He’s not probably going to get back to 50 with this group by November,” Baumann says, “but there is a big difference between 35% and 45.” Most Democrats agree the key for any Biden revival with independents will be actual improvement in inflation and the virus. But many also believe that the chastened tone of his State of the Union address – which replaced the promises of “transformational” leadership with more centrist language and reframed his economic plan as an effort to help families meet daily costs for child care, drugs and utilities – was a step in the right direction.

• Baumann’s second priority is for candidates to emphasize their own strengths and establish separation from Biden where necessary. That’s become harder to do, he acknowledges, in an era when attitudes toward the president increasingly shape voters’ choices in House and Senate races. But polls suggest voters are still open to some differentiation: In a January Quinnipiac poll, for instance, the positive ratings among independents for Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of the key GOP targets in November’s election, stood 15 points higher than Biden’s.

• Like many Democrats, though, Baumann thinks the key to Democrats’ closing the gap with independents is to highlight the elements of the GOP’s agenda they dislike. “You need to just make it clear that even if these voters are not happy with Biden that the alternative here is unacceptable,” he says.

Democrats have no shortage of targets for that effort, party strategists believe. For instance, even as the GOP majority on the Supreme Court nears a decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade and Republican-controlled states race to impose new limits (or effective bans) on abortion, a January CNN poll found that nearly three-fourths of independents want to maintain the constitutional right to the procedure.

Omero says Biden’s defense of abortion rights in last week’s speech was one of the moments when the positive reaction among independents veered most sharply from the negative response among Republicans.

When the president is suffering from low approval ratings, it’s common for his party to insist it will make the next election a choice, not a referendum. In practice, with views about the president exerting ever more influence over the results, that’s become more and more difficult to do. Schaffner, like other analysts, believes that while raising doubts about the Republican alternative may help Democrats win back independents disillusioned with Biden in the 2024 presidential election, history suggests that contrast message does not work as well in a midterm. Independents, he says, “because they don’t like either party” often engage in “balancing behavior” during midterms, which this year could translate into a view that “I should vote Republican to cancel out my dislike of Biden.”

But the continued polarization around Trump may offer Democrats an opportunity to break that pattern. For one thing, he remains about as unpopular among independents as Biden is. For another, he remains unusually visible, pressing his unfounded claims of fraud in the 2020 election, touting his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the Ukraine invasion and confronting continued revelations about his campaign to overturn the election’s result, which culminated in the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol last year.

Wadhams, like many Republicans, is generally confident that Democrats can’t shift the focus for most voters, especially independents, from the current President to his predecessor.