Biden isn't losing because of bad economic vibes
So why is his approval rating so low?
Happy Monday, everyone, especially if you’re a Kansas City Chiefs fan! In case you missed it, I announced last week that On The Edge, my forthcoming book about gambling and risk will be published on August 13 and that it’s available for preorders. I’m very excited about the book, and it’s great to have so many newsletter subscribers who have already preordered it — Silver Bulletin readers even helped it to become the top nonfiction book on Amazon’s Movers & Shakers list for a stretch late last week.
In other news, I have a guest essay in the New York Times that evaluates consumer confidence data in some detail and considers what it means for President Biden’s re-election prospects. When I started looking at this data late last year, I thought it presented an optimistic case for Biden. Now I’m not so sure, and the story wrestles with those uncertainties. I don’t want to preempt the Times story too much, but the key insight comes from this graphic:
Basically, there’s been a huge divergence in the two major consumer confidence surveys: the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment finds that consumers are in a relatively poor mood about the economy, while the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Survey has had a much more bullish outlook. The main reason is that they ask consumers different sorts of questions, and the Michigan numbers are more impacted by inflation.
The Times essay makes what I think is a pretty strong case that consumers’ views of the economy have basically been rational and can’t just be attributed to bad vibes or poor media coverage. I have some further deadlines today so I’m not sure I’m in the mood for a huge fight with Team Vibes. But I do think it’s curious that the Conference Board numbers — which have told a more bullish story than the Michigan ones — have been almost completely ignored in the vibes debate for no particularly good reason. To me, it seems like an example of something else I wrote about last week, which is the tendency for certain Democrats to be too quick to blame the media for whatever problems Biden is having.
The seemingly good news for Biden, though, is that economic perceptions are now improving, especially in the Michigan survey. I say seemingly good news because, so far, his approval ratings and his position against Trump haven’t really improved. There are a two major explanations for that, one bullish and one bearish.
We still have a loooooonnng way to go — it’s just February — and it’s a bit soon to be taking the polling all that seriously. Don’t get me wrong: an incumbent’s approval rating in February of his reelection year does historically have some predictive power1. But if your model of the election consists of some blend of “polls” and “fundamentals” , the fundamentals are getting better for Biden, even if the polls aren’t. Biden might lose, but it’s looking less likely that he’ll lose either because of the objective facts about the economy or because of false consumer perceptions about the economy.
On the other hand, the consumer confidence numbers are themselves based on surveys — so it ought to be worrying for the White House that subjective consumer perceptions about the economy are improving but voter perceptions of Biden aren’t yet. Maybe he just needs to go out and make the case for the economy. But it could also be that the relationship between the economy and incumbency is weaker than it once was, or that it was overstated to begin with. Or it could be that it’s outweighed by other factors, such as the internal split in the Democratic coalition over the war in Gaza — or the elephant in the room, Biden’s age.
Yes, Biden’s 81, something that overwhelming majorities of voters are concerned about in every poll — and yes, fairly or not, voters are considerably more concerned about Biden’s fitness for office than they are about the 77-year old Trump. Personally, I’m concerned about both. Perhaps my most ‘normie’ political view is sharing many Americans frustration that these are the candidates we’ve wound up with.
I’ve written a lot about Biden’s age here at Silver Bulletin, having been somewhat ahead of the curve in perceiving it to be a major potential problem for him, although it’s such an obvious problem that I wish I’d caught on to it even sooner. Really, I see this as a mirror of the economic vibes debate, in that I think voters are quite rational to be worried about Biden’s age and I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with efforts to spin those concerns away or to attribute them to unfair media coverage. I say that even as someone who finds Biden’s first-term accomplishments to be impressive.
But in the wake of last week’s special council report, I owe Silver Bulletin readers another beat or two on the age debate, so that’s coming later this week. In the meantime, feel free to post your own theory of the case about Biden in the comments section — but please keep it civil. See you soon.
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Athough empirically that’s less true for early head-to-head) polls.