Imagine you’re the driver of a tour bus. You’ve been very clear to all the passengers exactly which route you plan to take. In fact, there’s been a vote on the subject and a clear majority has elected you to drive the bus. But no sooner have you cranked up the engine than a chorus of voices yells up at you from one side of the bus: “You’re not the real driver!” You decide to ignore them.
Then you realize traffic is has grown even heavier than it was when the election took place. You find the bus slowed down for reasons beyond your control, but you’re doing the best job any human bus driver could do. You’re managing to stay on course for the most part.
Then one of the passengers decides to take a poll. It turns out only 40% of them think you’re doing a good job as driver. 60% disapprove of the way you’re driving the bus.
Because you’re a Spirited Reasoner, you know to take a result like that with a grain of salt. Your reasoning goes like this: “Approximately 45% of the passengers are unhappy because they didn’t vote to elect me in the first place, and they’re listening to those crackpots who claim I stole the election. They want me to stop the bus entirely—something that would make the majority of passengers furious. Then there’s a special group of passengers, around 15%, who are also unhappy, but for the opposite reason. They’re fine with the route I’ve chosen to take, but they want me to drive a lot faster. They can’t see the traffic as well as I can see it, and they’re growing impatient with my steady approach.”
Presidential approval polls suffer from that very flaw. They merely state a binary conclusion that a President is going in the wrong direction without clarifying which of many competing directions the voter would prefer to take. Approval ratings tend to be ideological in nature. If 45% insist on moving to the right while 15% insist on veering more sharply to the left, then the best any centrist President could ever do is to score in the neighborhood of 40% approval.
Should Joe Biden be worried, nevertheless? After all, 40% is not a majority.
Not really. That 15% bloc of voters on the left—call them Progressives—won’t vote for the Republican candidate in 2024. They’re just impatient with the speed of representative government. They might encourage a Progressive candidate to run against President Biden in the primaries, but primary challenges to incumbent Presidents have rarely succeeded and are typically discouraged. When that 15% realizes that their choice, in 2024, is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump (or a Trump clone), they will swallow hard and cast their ballots for the incumbent. So long as Joe Biden stays healthy, remains true to the overall tenor of his campaign promises, and continues to steer the ship of state in a more or less steady fashion, Americans will reelect him in 2024.