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Approval ratings and Trumpism: The challenges Democrats face ahead of 2022
When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 US Presidential Election, Democrats took to the streets to celebrate. Whether in cars or on foot, with loudspeakers or music blaring from phones, they celebrated the end of Donald Trump's presidency, the end of Trumpism and a return to “normal”.
It could certainly be argued that things have returned to “normal” again, at least in the political spheres of the United States. One major reason for this is the change in tone on social media. Late-night insults tweeted from the president's account are no longer something to watch out for and it seems less likely for a President Biden to start a war with a simple tweet, as many had feared during Trump’s time in office.
A recent Pew Research Study found that many Americans think Biden has changed “the tone and nature of political debate” in the United States “for the better” since taking office. Among Democrats, this opinion is shared by 73%. But while many things certainly have changed since the transition of power in January, it may be premature for Democrats to celebrate.
The presidential election in November 2020 was not a landslide. In fact, races in some states, such as Arizona, were so close that it took days to announce even a projected winner. Beyond the executive branch, it did not look much better for Democrats. The much-celebrated majority in the Senate was only narrowly achieved after the Georgia runoffs and with the tie-breaking power of Vice President Harris. Just one seat lost to the Republicans could tip the balance.
This tipping of the balance might occur sooner than Democrats would like. With the Midterm Elections coming up next year, one question looms large for the party: If Donald Trump is no longer the opposition, will voters still turn out for Democrats? An exit poll from the 2020 election as well as a study conducted after the election has shown that for many Americans a major reason to vote for Biden was to vote against Trump.
How to keep protest voters committed
So, how can Democrats keep voters committed in 2022? One important factor is the success of the Biden Administration. In the past two decades, only the 2002 midterm election saw the president’s party gaining seats in the House. President George W. Bush had a 62% approval rating at the time. In every midterm election since then, the president has had a more negative than positive approval rating and in all four cases, the respective party was not successful in the midterm elections.
President Biden has been doing well so far. On his 90th day in office, the average of opinion polls reflected a 53.3% approval rating for the president. In a recent Pew Research Center study, 88% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents said the new administration has so far done “an excellent or good job” of managing the vaccine rollout, a key campaign promise. If Biden keeps these approval ratings up, Democrats will have less to worry about in 2022. But this will be highly dependent on whether Biden can deliver on his other campaign promises like creating “millions of jobs”, immigration reform, making health care more accessible, and advancing policies to counter racial inequality.
How to counter Trumpist communication styles
The second challenge for Democrats, however, lies in political communication. Trump's use of Twitter received much criticism over the years and even got him banned from the platform indefinitely in January. But his strategy was effective. Trump increased his daily Twitter use steadily over the course of his presidency and tweeted at a rate of 34.8 tweets per day in the second half of 2020 (with a record of 200 tweets and retweets on a single day in June 2020).
Whether it was hurtling personal insults, firing staff via Twitter or spreading opinions, Trump's tweets always had an audience. On Twitter, he was able to not only reach his supporters with unparalleled immediacy, but he also acted as an agenda-setter for the news media. There scarcely was a day that Trump did not make headlines with his tweets one way or another.
Going up against such a dominant news agenda-setter can prove difficult. In 2020, Biden presented himself as the Anti-Trump. With carefully worded messages and a sense of calm, Biden's Twitter habits stood in stark contrast to Trump's. But without Trump as the incumbent and his presidency as the immediate backdrop, will the 2020 communications strategy prevail in 2022? Or are voters increasingly interested in a more direct communications approach like the one Trump made popular?
Democrats may not face Trump in 2022, but they will almost certainly go up against some form of Trumpism. When the former president departed Washington in January, his ideology remained. The Republicans who supported him and his policies are still serving on Capitol Hill. The Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Capitol insurrection are now faced with primary challenges. The Republican party seems far from making any attempts to rebrand itself after the Trump presidency. If anything, it seems that Trumpism is boiling under the surface, ready to make a sweeping return during the next election cycle.
The stakes are high
Democrats are thus not only faced with the challenge of keeping protest voters committed to their party and watching Biden's approval ratings, but they are also faced with the challenge of Trumpism once again. Democrats have a little over a year to consider their strategies for the 2022 midterms. A central question will almost certainly have to be how to counter a Trump-style communications strategy and how to gain news media attention when the opposition is such a dominant Trumpist agenda-setter.
The stakes could not be higher for Democrats. A loss in House or Senate seats could present a dire picture for Democrats: If Republicans were to take control of the House or Senate, they would gain the power to veto bills introduced by the Biden Administration, effectively halting progress for Democrats. And without progress and achievements to point to, keeping the White House in 2024 could prove challenging.
Caroline Leicht is a PhD student in Politics at the University of Southampton and a member of the PSA's Early Career Network. She previously covered the 2020 US Presidential Election for the German public broadcaster ZDF. Image credit: White House/Flickr.