The March 1-2 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which contained some good news for President Joe Biden, didn’t get the usual amount of attention when it was released last week.
The combination of the bloody war in Ukraine, an existing narrative about Biden’s political problems, and a good dose of skepticism about "bounces" after a presidential speech all combined to make most analysts cautious about whether Biden’s standing really has improved.
Sure, some people used the poll as a hook to talk about a possible Biden turnaround, but the more widespread advice was to wait for more polling over an extended period before believing that something fundamental has happened.
Extra caution is always wise when relying on a single survey, even a quality one like Marist, and particularly when the survey finds a noticeable shift in public opinion.
The survey had Biden’s overall job approval up 8 points (to 47%), his approval on his handling of Ukraine up 18 points (to 52%), his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic up 8 points (to 55%) and his handling of the economy up 8 points, to a still mediocre 45 percent.
These numbers, which constitute an improvement in the president’s standing from previous polling but are still troubling for the White House as the midterms approach, could all slide back in two weeks or two months to where they once were. Who knows what will happen in Ukraine and with inflation?
But if you are Biden or a national Democratic political strategist, you would much rather have the new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist numbers than another survey showing the president’s overall job approval hovering just below 40%.
Yes, survey "bounces" that follow from speeches or dramatic events often dissipate rather quickly, as voters return to their original assessments. But there is a chance that the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey may have found something more significant, not just a short-lived spike in Biden’s approval.
That is because the president’s job approval in the survey surged by 27 points (to 90%) among Democrats and 17 points (from 22% to 39%) among independents.
Biden’s overall job approval numbers have been low since the summer of 2021 because he has lost so much support among Democrats, the demographic group that should include his strongest supporters — and one that he desperately needs to turn out to support Democratic nominees in the November elections.
"Democrats came home," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, in assessing the new poll numbers.
Now the question is whether they will stay there.
Even Biden’s job approval among Republicans inched up in the most recent Marist survey, which led NPR’s senior political editor/correspondent Domenico Montanaro to suggest that "Biden appears to be benefiting from a rally-around-the-Ukrainian-flag moment."
But any Biden bounce among Republicans is almost certain to dissipate over the next few weeks unless events occur that strengthen Biden’s hand. Self-identified Republicans will find other reasons to disapprove of Biden’s performance.
Biden’s improved job approval among independents also is up dramatically. But those numbers are likely to soften if the news from Ukraine is bad and inflation continues to undermine public confidence in the administration’s handling of the economy.
A strong economy and low unemployment rate usually combine to boost an incumbent president’s standing in the polls. But Americans are so focused on inflation that they are not giving Biden any credit for good economic news.
This is particularly true for independents, who normally don’t pay a great deal of attention to politics, are less ideological than most partisans, and often cast their votes based on "mood" rather than data.
Unfortunately for Biden, he still faces a long list of challenges, and he cannot count on much help from the GOP when the country returns to domestic issues.
Midterm elections usually turn on two factors: turnout levels by the president’s party and the partisan preference of independents.
If both factors favor the party not in the White House, the president’s party usually gets a shellacking. That’s why Democrats must turn out in strong numbers in November, and why Biden support among self-identified Democrats is so important even now.
And it is also why the new Marist poll numbers are so interesting.