On the heels of last Tuesday’s stinging election results, Democrats got even more unwelcome news early this week. A postelection USA Today poll showed that President Joe Biden’s approval rating had sunk to 38 percent, thanks to his cratering standing among crucial independent voters. Buried deep within the crosstabs was an especially significant fact: the issue that has dominated politics for the past 18 months and unquestionably helped Biden win the presidency—fighting the pandemic—is rapidly fading as a priority among voters, especially Republicans and independents.
Those voters have shifted their focus to matters that Biden and the Democrats in general fare poorly on right now: the economy, unemployment, and taxes. Short of yet another surge in serious cases and deaths, the 2022 midterms—with Congress and dozens of governorships across America up for grabs—will take place in a different political landscape.
The government’s response to Covid-19 proved a significant issue in the 2020 presidential election. In an extraordinarily close race between Donald Trump and Biden, exit polling found that 61 percent of voters rated the pandemic as important to their vote. Even as lockdowns sent economic activity plunging and joblessness soaring, more than half of voters said in November 2020 that the next president’s priority should be fighting the virus, not boosting the economy. Biden gained a strong advantage from these sentiments: 53 percent of voters favored him to do a better job handling the virus, compared with just 43 percent who rated Trump as superior. Voters also endorsed strict pandemic-fighting policies. Two-thirds said wearing a mask should be a “public health responsibility” rather than a personal choice.
A year later, with Biden in office for ten months, millions of Americans vaccinated, and serious Covid cases at a small fraction of what they were in 2020, voters’ views have flipped. Only 43 percent of those surveyed last week approved of Biden’s handling of Covid. While 81 percent of Democrats gave the president positive marks, only 41 percent of independents said Biden was doing a good job. That was one reason why just 15 percent of independents in the USA Today poll said they want Biden to run for reelection.
Some of the dissatisfaction is clearly a result of misplaced priorities, the survey suggested. Even as Biden imposes an unprecedented national vaccine mandate on employers, just 6 percent of voters in the USA Today survey said that fighting Covid with such strategies should be the president’s chief priority. Nearly twice as many voters say that he should focus first on the economy and jobs.
These national results reflect similar responses from voters in Virginia and New Jersey in recent polling. In both states, Republicans did far better than anticipated, with Republican Glenn Youngkin coming from behind to upset Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, and New Jersey GOP candidate Jack Ciattarelli coming much closer to incumbent Phil Murphy than polls or experts predicted. Changing priorities had much to do with these results. In August, with the Delta variant of Covid raging nationally and in New Jersey, polls showed Murphy with a 16-point lead over Ciattarelli. More than four in ten voters named the pandemic as the most important issue facing the state. No other issue scored higher, and that gave Murphy his lead, as only 21 percent of those surveyed trusted Ciattarelli to do a better job on Covid. Independents rated the Republican better on issues like taxes and jobs, but they gave Murphy a big edge on the pandemic.
Within three months, though, attitudes had changed significantly. In a final poll before the election, which showed Ciattarelli closing to within six points, only 15 percent of voters named Covid as the most important issue facing the state—a dramatic decline. Covid now ranked not first but fourth among voters’ concerns, behind the economy, taxes, and education. Significantly, 48 percent of the key independent vote named either taxes or the economy as the top issue, and Murphy’s approval rating among independents fell below 50 percent.
A similar process played out in Virginia, where an exit poll showed the virus to be tied with taxes for third among voters’ priorities. With much of the media attention in that race focused on school controversies tied to critical race theory, education came second. As in New Jersey, the economy topped voters’ lists in Virginia. More than twice as many ranked it their top priority as fighting Covid. And as in Jersey, voters gave the Republican candidate a huge advantage over the Democrat on handling the economy.
These changes in voter priorities, along with the Biden administration’s performance on such issues as the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, have given voters second thoughts about their choice last November. The USA Today survey asked how they would vote if the election between Trump and Biden were held today—44 percent selected the ex-president, while only 40 percent said they would vote for Biden. But 12 percent said that they would not vote or would vote for a third-party candidate. The numbers could have been worse for Biden; despite the president’s sinking popularity, enthusiasm for Trump is not high outside of the Republican Party. Just 36 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to see Trump run again. While two-thirds of Republicans endorsed another Trump run, only a third of independent voters—the voting bloc that elected Biden—are eager for Trump 2.0. Half of independent voters rated Trump unfavorably in the USA Today poll, compared with just 43 percent who approve of him today.
Despite the significant changes in the broader electorate’s priorities, Biden has maintained hawkish Covid policies like the vaccine mandate. Complicating any effort of the party to pivot on the issue, Democratic voters still rank Covid as far more important than do other voters. Absent a significant new virus outbreak, other voters will likely judge Biden and Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates more on their performance on the economy and jobs in the next 12 months—issues that currently favor Republicans by wide margins. Only occasionally in the history of American politics have voter priorities shifted so rapidly. But the response to the Covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented—so our politics may break new ground, too, in the next election cycle.
Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images