WASHINGTON — A lot of elements went into Tuesday’s unexpectedly good night for Democrats, but one of the biggest factors was a set of voters who surprisingly came through for the party: Voters who "somewhat disapprove" of President Joe Biden's job performance.
There aren't a lot of those voters, but in the exit polls they stand out for a few reasons. In a deeply divided country they appeared to be one of the few swing voting blocs this year and even if they "somewhat disapprove" of Biden, they seem to strongly disapprove of former President Donald Trump.
Let's start with the basics: How these voters impacted Tuesday’s results.
Overall, exit poll data showed Biden's “somewhat disapprovers” were a small slice of the electorate, about 1 in every 10 voters this year. Voters who somewhat or strongly approve of Biden made up 44% of the total vote and voters who strong disapprove of Biden made up 45% of the total tally, in the data.
And among those voter groups, "somewhat disapprove" was the only segment where the vote was even close. Voters who “strongly approve” of Biden voted Democratic by about 94 points. Voters who “somewhat approve” of Biden voted Democratic by an 84-point margin. And voters who “strongly disapprove” of Biden were a mirror image of those two groups, voting for Republicans by 91 points.
But voters who somewhat disapproved of Biden narrowly leaned Democratic, by about 4 points. That number is a bit surprising. Usually voters who somewhat disapprove of the president tend to lean away from his party, sometimes fairly strongly, but this year was different. And the data suggest Trump and Trump-backed candidates were part of the reason.
Consider two states where Republicans at the top of the ticket met different fates: Georgia and New Hampshire. In both states, the "somewhat disapprove" voters split their ballots.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won 57% of those "somewhat disapprove" of Biden voters and he wound up winning reelection comfortably, by about 8 points. Meanwhile, in that state's Senate race, Republican Herschel Walker captured only 44% of those voters and came in second narrowly to Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. Warnock and Walker will have a runoff election Dec. 6th, since neither candidate got over 50% of the vote.
The story was similar in New Hampshire, where Republican Gov. Chris Sununu won 59% of the "somewhat disapprove" vote and trounced his Democratic opponent by about 16 points. In the Senate race, Republican nominee Don Buldoc won only 25% of the "somewhat disapprove" vote and was beaten soundly by Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan — by 9 points.
What did those Republican candidates have in common? Kemp and Sununu did not align themselves with Trump. Walker and Bolduc did. There are other factors, of course. Walker and Bolduc were not the strongest candidates and Warnock and Hassan were incumbents who ran hard, but the larger point about Trump is hard to ignore.
So what exactly does the "somewhat disapprove" bloc look like? A collection of NBC News polling data from this year offers some answers.
First and foremost, the voters in that group are young and they tend to call themselves independent.
The NBC News poll data shows that 50% of the "somewhat disapprove" bloc sits in the 18 to 34 age group. That number is twice the national average. Overall, 18- to 34-year-olds made up only about 25% of the voters in the surveys over in 2022.
And roughly a quarter of the voter group calls itself independent. That is nearly twice the national average in the polling data.
Young and independent voters are often the kinds of voters who don’t turnout for midterm elections, but the results from Tuesday suggest they did this year — or at least enough of them did to play a big role in the vote, particularly in close races.
Not all the "somewhat disapprove" vote considers itself to be independent, though. And even Democrats and Republicans in the group look different than the electorate as whole, according to 2022 NBC News Poll data.
Take the Democrats.
The Democrats who "somewhat disapprove" of Biden's job performance are much more likely to have supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 Democratic primaries than Democrats overall. Among those "somewhat disapprove" Democrats, 62% voted for Sanders or Warren in 2020. Among Democrats overall, the figure is 20 points lower.
That might not be a huge surprise. Democrats who backed Warren and Sanders in 2020 are probably by definition more likely to “somewhat disapprove” of Biden's performance. Still, the fact that those voters (or at least some of them) turned out on Election Day 2022 was important for Democrats.
The Republican group may be even more interesting.
The NBC News Poll asks Republicans whether they primarily support Trump or the Republican Party and among Republicans overall the percentage that say they support the party more than Trump has grown to a majority, 57% in the 2022 data.
But the “party Republican” number is astronomical among Republicans who "somewhat disapprove" of Biden. In that group 81% say they support the Republican Party more than Trump. Only 13% say they support Trump more than the party.
In other words, the data suggest that Republicans who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden, clearly don’t like the president, but they find Democrats at least somewhat palatable — more palatable than Trump in many cases.
Add it all up and the “somewhat disapprove” Biden voters look like a pretty important piece of the 2022 electoral puzzle. Small? Yes, but mighty, especially in close races and swing states this year. And with Trump seemingly ready to announce he is going to run for president again, this group of voters could be just as important looking forward to 2024.