President Joe Biden’s political standing has benefited greatly over the past couple of years from his predecessor Donald Trump’s inability to cede the limelight. It’s part of the reason that Biden’s Democratic Party had one of the best midterms last fall for a party that controlled the White House, despite the president’s low approval rating.
But in the first month of 2023, Biden has found the spotlight shining on him after classified documents were found at his Wilmington, Delaware, home and a Washington, DC, office he used after serving as vice president.
Since then, his political standing has taken a small but noticeable hit in polling, while Trump seems to have slowed what had been a downward slide in Republican primary surveys after a historically poor performance by the GOP in the midterms.
One fascinating element of the Biden presidency has been how Americans still seem to be entranced with Trump, even though he is no longer president. I’ve long pointed out that more people search for Trump than Biden on Google. But that has not been the case over the latter half of January.
Among those who searched for either Biden or Trump, about 60% of them in the past two weeks searched for Biden. This is the highest percentage Biden has reached when compared with Trump since the late summer and fall of 2021. Searches for Biden relative to Trump peaked in early September 2021, right after the US withdrew its final troops from Afghanistan.
That time stamp is notable, too, because it coincided with a drop in Biden’s approval rating from which he hasn’t recovered. Biden’s approval rating has trailed his disapproval rating in an average of polls from that point on.
Last week, after more people searched for Biden’s name on Google, a number of polls appeared to confirm a drop in his approval rating. It went from 47% to 44% among registered voters in the Marquette University Law School poll. The CNN/SSRS survey put his approval rating at 46% among registered voters, a drop from 48% in December.
Neither of these are big dips, and both are within the polls’ margin of error. But they’re notable when looked at together and within the context of the average of polls – Biden’s average approval rating is down about 2.5 points from two weeks ago (when he was at his highest level since 2021).
Now, we don’t necessarily know that Biden’s approval rating is falling because of the discovery of the classified documents and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the matter. Gas prices have also been rising, which has been a problem for Biden over his presidency.
Still, there can be little doubt that Biden’s not been helped by the classified documents saga. Most Americans think, at a minimum, that he did something unethical in his handling of the classified material.
Trump takes a back seat
As the spotlight has shone on Biden, Trump has seemingly been taking a step back from it. Even after declaring his third bid for the Republican presidential nomination late last year, Trump only really hit the campaign trail this weekend, with stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina on Saturday.
A look at the number of people searching for Trump on Google tells the story of his inactivity. Fewer people have looked him up this month than in any month since he started running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015.
This does not appear to have hurt Trump’s 2024 bid. If anything, it has helped. Trump’s national polling numbers had been in a free fall in November after a midterm election that was bad for Republicans (the opposition party) by historical standards. Trump, of course, had become a focal point of Democrats’ attacks.
In concrete numbers, Trump’s national polling lead of about 30 points over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a hypothetical Republican primary dropped to low double-digits almost overnight.
Trump’s fortunes have stabilized since then, though. He’s still ahead of DeSantis by double digits in national polling, when other candidates are included. The betting markets, which showed DeSantis jumping out to a clear advantage in December, now show Trump back to being even with the Florida governor.
The question is what happens when Trump gets back into the limelight, as he has been this weekend. Will it remind Republican voters of what they like about him? Or will it remind voters of what they don’t like about Trump?
If it’s the latter, don’t be surprised if the candidate who benefits most is not a fellow Republican.
Rather, it could be the man who succeeded Trump in the White House and has faced a lot of unfavorable press over the past few weeks.