Biden is very unpopular. It might not tell us much about the Midterms.

This week, a Siena College/New York Times poll found that President Biden received just a 33 percent approval rating, a result so bad it sparked speculation — including from Kind regards – about whether he would even run again in 2024. The Siena/New York Times number is at the low end of poll consensus, but Biden’s approval rating in our poll average — about 39 percent — is still a historically low number.

And yet the same poll showed a neck-and-neck race for Congress. Democrats led by 1 percentage point among registered voters on which party voters prefer controlled Congress, and trailed by 1 point among likely voters.

What to make of this apparent divergence? What is the President’s approval rating? actually Matter for Predicting Congressional Outcomes?

From a zoomed out perspective, the answer is that there is a pretty strong relationship. If you knew nothing else about the congressional race, you would expect an unpopular president’s party to lose seats. And indeed, that will probably happen again this year. According to the deluxe version of our forecast, Republicans are 87 percent the favorite to take control of the House of Representatives. The Senate remains much closer to a toss-up, but that has more to do with poor Republican candidates than anything the Democrats are doing well.

Will the Democrats win in Georgia again in 2022? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

But predicting the number of seats lost in Congress based on the President’s approval rating is not quite the question that interests us from a prognostic point of view. Rather, we want to know the importance of Presidential approval given all the other information we have on the race. In other words, is Biden’s poor approval already “seasoned” in the generic congressional polls and the polls of individual House and Senate elections? Or is there reason to believe that the Democrats’ standing will deteriorate by November?

The statistical answer is that it is most of time baked in. Caution: The following paragraphs get a bit technical. If you want a more intuitive answer, continue with the bold bullet points below.

The way our model does this is by looking at every congressional election since 1990 and assessing how predictable the movement in the general vote has been based on what we sometimes call “fundamentals.” In particular, factors examined include the president’s approval rating, the outcome of previous congressional elections, whether or not they are midterm elections, and the level of political polarization. (Times of high political polarization — like now — will tend to produce less dramatic swings in congressional races because there are fewer swing voters.)

I believe Dems’ energy on abortion balances the intermediate equation: silver

Right now, these “fundamentalists” expect the Democrats to eventually lose the House referendum by about 8 points, which would be a terrible result for the party and very likely result in losing both houses of Congress. By comparison, if Biden had a balanced approval rating, instead of being about 17 points under water, the “Fundamentals” would predict the Democrats would lose the popular vote by about 4.5 points, still an almost certain doom in the House of Representatives would, but it might be enough to save the Senate.

However, the model also weighs these “basics” against the current state of affairs. Right now, Democrats are about 2 points behind in our general poll average for congressional elections — one proxy for the House ballot. But that’s actually more of a 4-point deficit among likely voters, as Republicans are likely to have a turnout advantage in November. Our model takes this into account, but the model also takes factors into account in predicting the popular vote in the House of Representatives, in addition to the general vote, and when we take these factors into account, our model predicts that the Democrats will lose the popular vote by almost 6 points, not that far away from what the “Basics” shows.

What will the Democrats do with the Supreme Court? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

But even if there were a larger gap, the “fundamentals” in the model ultimately don’t carry as much weight. The reason for this is simply that even at this fairly early point in the cycle, the generic ballot (at least if you adjust it properly to account for likely voters) and other indicators directly related to the current election were historically more reliable predictions as the “basics.” The model expects conditions for Democrats to get a little worse, but really just a little bit.

So what is the intuition behind this? Here are some factors to consider:

1. Voters have good reason to reject Biden without wanting Republicans in Congress

If your approval rating has fallen into the 30s, you have not only lost the confidence of most swing voters, but also some members of your own party. The Siena/New York Times poll, for example, only showed Biden an approval rating of 70 percent, even among Democrats. However, 90 percent of Democrats in the same poll prefer Democratic control of Congress, compared to just 4 percent who want the GOP in charge.

One concern for Democrats is that these disaffected voters will not vote. Still, there’s no particular reason to expect them to vote Republican if they do. Many of them think Biden is too old — a concern shared by many independent voters as well — but that’s more of a factor in 2024 than Congressional preferences for 2022.

And on many issues — from abortion to LGBTQ rights to the integrity of the 2020 vote — Republicans take hard-right, partisan positions that have little appeal with swing voters and could motivate even otherwise disaffected Democrats to campaign. Parties generally pay a fine for ideological extremism. In other words, while Democrats have also taken unpopular left-wing positions on many issues, Republicans are not as willing to capitalize on high inflation and a poor Democratic electoral environment as a more dovish, less Trumpian version of the party would be .

2. It is usually best to trust a direct measure over an indirect one

This is just a good principle of statistical analysis. If you have a direct measure of the quantity you’re interested in, there’s not much need for a proxy or an indirect one.

For example, suppose you’re trying to estimate the volume of home sales in—I don’t know—Indianapolis. You can think of some clever ways to get there. You could drive around town and count the number of FOR SALE signs. Or you can track the number of clicks on Zillow and other websites that list houses for sale. But all of that is incidental because home sales can be measured directly, albeit with some delay until the reports are generated.

If you are interested in races for Congress and ask voters how they will vote for Congress and what they think of the President, voter preference for Congress is the most direct measure and the one that should be more reliable. Frankly, it’s presumptuous to suggest otherwise and not believe a voter who says she disapproves of Biden but also wants the Democrats to remain in charge of Congress.

The political consequences of the fall of Roe v. Wade

3. Biden and the Democrats weren’t that popular initially

In the November 2020 national exit poll, 52 percent had a positive opinion of Biden and 46 percent had a negative opinion. That’s significantly better than his numbers are now, and Biden clinched a fairly comfortable victory in the popular vote. But it was also not the kind of far-reaching mandate that former President Barack Obama had in 2008, which was accompanied by approval and sympathy figures that initially skyrocketed into the 1960s and 1970s. Additionally, Democrats drove into Obama’s first term with 257 seats in the House of Representatives, far more than the 222 they held after the 2020 election.

Part of the reason the 2010 midterm election was so awful for the Democrats was that it was nowhere near as popular as any party in modern American politics is likely to be. In 2022, Democrats don’t have that problem because they weren’t very popular to begin with. They barely held the house.

So while the goodwill toward Biden may have been just enough to get him over the hill in 2020 — and much of that goodwill has now evaporated — the conditions aren’t necessarily the different than two years ago. The major parties are both unpopular, there are few nationally popular politicians and the country is highly polarised. With unpopular former President Donald Trump potentially running for a 2024 bid soon, he could also be a factor in the race — maybe one to help Democrats.

4. So far, Presidential approval and the race for Congress have diverged, not converged

As a final note, if you predicted a few months ago that poll numbers for Congress and Biden’s numbers would converge, you would have been wrong. Since May 1, Biden’s approval rating is down about 9 points:

And yet the generic ballot has remained essentially unchanged:

Instead, as voters have gathered more information about the race, they have made more distinctions between how they feel about Biden and what they want to see in Congress. Perhaps this trend will reverse. But the “fundamentalists” — the analysts who believe the races for Congress are predictable based on presidential approval and other basic conditions — have so far been wrong.

CORRECTION (July 15, 2022 11:06 am): A previous version of this article calculated Biden’s approval rating change from May 1, 2021 – not May 1, 2022. This calculation has been updated to reflect the change in Biden’s approval rating since May 1, 2022.