The stock market’s relief rally (at least before Powell’s remarks this morning) has been matched by a relief rally in the mainstream media, which has suddenly ceased the parade of “dump Biden” stories and is now posting “news” stores with the message, “Biden’s Back Baby!” The sense of relief in the media is palpable: Biden and the Democrats got something done, Republicans have underperformed in recent primary contests, and hence maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to hold off the barbarian hordes of Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, Mongols, Celts, and Republicans at the voting booth in November! Happy days are here again!
The polls bear this out—a little. The RCP poll average finds Biden rising above a 40 percent approval rating for the first time in months:
The conventional explanations are that Biden and the Democrats finally passed something (the Inflation Reduction Act, hardee-har-har), along with a backlash against the Dobbs decision on abortion.
I think Biden’s modest bump has a simpler explanation: gasoline prices stopped rising, and even retreated a bit (though still are far above pump prices when Trump left office not that long ago).
I heard once from a Democratic pollster than Bill Clinton paid close attention to gasoline prices while he was president, and indeed despite the presence of Vice President Egor, patron saint of climate prostration, his administration didn’t seriously attempt to strangle the oil and gas industry like Biden is trying to do now. And in fact by 1999, it wasn’t unusual to find gasoline below $1 a gallon in many parts of the U.S., which might be one reason Clinton survived impeachment so easily?
I’ve been puzzled for a long time that there hasn’t been more study of the possible relationship between gasoline prices and presidential approval ratings. You’d think this question would be catnip for the statistical regression model mavens of political science and public opinion research, but the academic literature bearing on the question is scarce. There’s a chapter in a 2017 book on political psychology entitled “Presidential Approval and Gas Prices: Sociotropic or Pocketbook Influence?”, but it is not available anywhere online. There has been some other work that finds a weakening correlation between real (inflation-adjusted) gas prices and presidential approval, but this seems faulty for the simple reason that the magnitude of change over time (i.e., the doubling of nominal pump prices in less than two years) has a larger impact on public perception than inflation-adjusted prices. That’s a trickier regression to run, though.
But the Biden Bump may actually be bad news for Democrats heading into the 2024 election cycle. As a rough guess, every point increase in Biden’s approval rating, combined with possible Republican underperformance in the November midterm, increases the probability that Biden runs again in 2024 by 10 percent; that is, it will foreclose the ability of Democrats to force him to abdicate, and prevent any other Democrats from mounting a primary challenge. My hunch is that a lot of Democrats are secretly worried that Biden will rally just enough to keep him on, just as the Iranian hostage crisis boosted Jimmy Carter just enough for a while to kill off Ted Kennedy’s challenge in 1980. And we know how that worked out for Democrats.