President Biden’s Acute Image Problem with Independents
Democrats’ success or failure in 2022 starts at the top. Right now, Biden is in deep trouble with critical Independent voters.
American politics is increasingly determined by the actions and attitudes of Independents. Partisans on both sides of the aisle reliably align their voting habits, beliefs, and leader evaluations with their respective parties. Democrats mostly like if not love Joe Biden and his agenda, and Republicans mostly hate Joe Biden and his agenda. Not surprising.
One of the most important trends for political analysts then is how Independents are tracking: are they lined up more with Democrats and their positions, or more with Republicans? On this front, President Biden is tanking—badly.
Independents’ views of Biden, and on the economy and Covid-related policies, are much more aligned with Republicans than Democrats, albeit not as intensely. This public image deficiency with Independents should occupy the minds of Democrats and the White House. If Biden’s image does not improve with these important voters over the next few months, Democrats can expect serious losses in congressional elections this fall.
According to a top-notch survey conducted by The Economist/YouGov in mid-January 2022, around 3 in 10 Americans overall identify as political Independents, and a roughly similar proportion identify as ideologically moderate. Since equal percentages of Independents lean towards one party or the other, one fifth of Americans may be classified as true Independents. Only 34 percent of Independents have ever considered themselves to be a Democrat at any point in their life, while only one quarter of Independents have considered themselves to be a Republican.
Independents are here to stay.
Fifty-nine percent of Independents disapprove of President Biden’s handling of jobs and the economy. Forty-six percent of Independents strongly disapprove of Biden on the economy along with 70 percent of Republicans (but only 5 percent of Democrats).
Only 3 in 10 Independents believe that President Biden cares about the needs and problems of people like them a lot (9 percent) or some (21 percent). A scant 15 percent of Republicans feel similarly cared about compared to 79 percent of Democrats.
Three quarters of Independents say that President Biden is a very or somewhat weak leader. Forty-eight percent of Independents say Biden is a very weak leader along with three quarters of Republicans. Only 7 percent of Democrats view him as very weak.
Fifty-four percent of Independents say President Biden is not honest and trustworthy. More than 8 in 10 Republicans concur with this evaluation of the President’s honesty versus only 12 percent of Democrats.
More than 6 in 10 Independents report being uneasy about President Biden’s ability to deal wisely with an international crisis. Nearly 9 in 10 Republicans agree with this assessment compared to less than one fifth of Democrats.
About 6 in 10 Independents feel that President Biden says what he thinks people want to hear rather than what he believes. Three-quarters of Republicans hold the same opinion of his sincerity versus less than one quarter of Democrats.
More than 7 in 10 Independents believe that President Biden will not be able to bring the country together. Nine in 10 Republicans believe similarly compared to around one third of Democrats.
Nearly 6 in 10 Independents say they feel pessimistic about the next few years with Joe Biden as President. Eighty percent of Republicans are equally pessimistic about the next few years versus less than one-fifth of Democrats.
These are unsettling image numbers for Biden and Democrats. In each case, Independents line up more closely with the views of Republicans. Overall, 55 percent of Independents report in The Economist/YouGov survey that their political views are closer to Republicans than to Democrats when asked directly.
Notably, on Covid-related questions, Independents also track more with Republicans than Democrats in terms of personal worries about the virus and in the belief that the worst of the pandemic is now behind us. Independents are basically split on whether they are more concerned about protecting Americans from the health effects of the coronavirus or more concerned about protecting Americans from the economic effects of the pandemic. In comparison, Republicans are more concerned about the economic effects (by about a 60-40 percent margin) while Democrats are overwhelmingly more concerned with the health effects (by about an 80-20 percent margin).
On the personal behavior front, 40 percent of Independents say they have not received any Covid vaccine shots—slightly higher than reported levels of non-vaccination among Republicans. In contrast, only 14 percent of Democrats say they have not received any vaccine shots. Among these Independents who are not vaccinated, more than 6 in 10 say they do not plan on ever getting any shot of a Covid vaccine, along with more than 8 in 10 Republicans who are not vaccinated.
Fifty-eight percent of Independents also believe that businesses should not be allowed to mandate vaccines for their customers as do three quarters of Republicans. Less than one quarter of Democrats feel similarly that businesses should not be able to mandate customer vaccines.
More broadly, 62 percent of Independents say they disapprove of President Biden’s handling of Covid, including 46 percent who strongly disapprove. In comparison, 68 percent of Republicans strongly disapprove of the President’s handling of Covid versus only 6 percent of Democrats. Many Independents are clearly alienated from the Covid policies and regulations put in place in many blue states and cities, and by the Biden administration at the federal level, presenting further problems for his image.
The political reality of Independents’ negative view of the President is staring Democrats right in the face and they can’t afford to look away.
What can Biden do to turn things around with these voters? Examining other aspects of this survey, it’s clear Independents want the President to take a more moderate and pragmatic approach to governing since most of these Americans view him as either ideologically liberal or very liberal (52 percent) rather than moderate (20 percent).
More importantly, Biden should focus on Independents’ core concerns which overlap more with Democrats than Republicans: for example, jobs and the economy, health care, and climate change and the environment are listed as the top three most important concerns for both Independents and Democrats.
Focus on bringing down consumer prices—Independents are 5 times more likely to say inflation is a bigger problem than unemployment. Pass some sensible policies to shore up health care affordability and invest in clean energy jobs and businesses. Drop the ideological pursuit of side issues or massive bills that Independent voters don’t particularly care about or trust. Turn the heat down on the Covid culture wars while still promoting reasonable public health measures for schools, businesses, and public spaces.
The path forward seems clear: Biden needs to return to the core image of his campaign and inaugural address—an empathetic leader who will work cooperatively with anyone to advance America’s interests and the economic security of all people.