Independents favor the GOP right now, poll finds. Here’s why it matters

Six months out from the midterm election, Republicans running for Congress are enjoying the strongest public support they have seen in a decade, according to the latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll. As President Joe Biden struggles to gain political momentum, the GOP is also getting more favorable marks on key issues like inflation — signaling challenging, if not dismal, days ahead for the Democratic Party.

Roughly half of U.S. adults — 47 percent — said they would support a Republican candidate if the 2022 midterm election was held today, and slightly fewer — 44 percent — back the Democrats. Republicans have strong support among independents who break toward the GOP by 7 points, and only one in 10 say they’re still undecided on which party to support.

Black voters still offer Democrats some of the party’s most loyal support. But after a majority of Latino voters picked Biden in 2020, about half now say they would vote to send a Republican candidate to the nation’s capital — a dramatic swing, and a reminder to election watchers that demographic groups are not monolithic in their values.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

The Republican Party rarely polls ahead of Democrats on the generic ballot, according to political scientist Lara Brown, who directs the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. For Democrats to come back and win elections, they need to make significant gains in public support. But, she added, it’s too early, and political churn is too volatile, to know which party will emerge victorious from the midterms.

“Twelve hours is an eternity in politics,” Brown said.

WATCH: A divided Congress grapples with rising gas prices, COVID relief and immigration

Despite historic employment levels and wage growth, runaway inflation is hitting everyone’s wallets and has given Republicans a political edge in the weeks before more than a dozen states hold their primaries. The data suggests the public trusts them more than Democrats right now to control inflation, Brown said, and by a huge margin – 21 percentage points.

The economy is not the only pressing issue where Americans put greater faith in Republicans. About four out of 10 Americans prefer GOP leadership on national security, gun policy and crime.

U.S. adults tend to think Democrats do a better job than Republicans on handling the coronavirus, abortion, education, voting rights, election security, LGBTQ rights and climate change. But Brown said most people see less urgency in those issues compared to being able to pay bills or mitigate fallout from the war in Ukraine.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

The current economic challenges have taken a toll not only on Democrats vying for their spots on Capitol Hill, but also on the one currently residing at the White House. After the annual rate of inflation first hit its highest level in three decades back in October, the public’s dislike of Biden’s economic leadership climbed above 50 percent and has since remained at a statistical standstill. This latest poll finds 55 percent of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy – 17 percentage points more than a year ago.

Biden’s approval slump

The news gets worse for the president. The percentage of Americans who have an unfavorable impression of Biden has hit its highest level — 53 percent — since he was still campaigning to lead the country back in September 2019, while his job approval ratings remain near the lowest of his presidency so far.

Overall, 41 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s job as president, with only 16 percent saying they strongly approve of the work he is doing. By comparison, 37 percent of U.S. adults strongly disapprove. One out of 10 Democrats and a quarter of Black Americans don’t like what they’re seeing from the Oval Office, and women are about evenly split. His support has rapidly receded since early March when he delivered his State of the Union speech, in which he tried to rally support for his domestic agenda and denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Though Americans have always been split in their support of Biden’s handling of that conflict, his edge there has also slipped into the red in the last month.)

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Thanks to prolonged supply chain issues and prices bloated by inflation, any politician or political candidate would have a steep hill to climb, David Barker of American University told the PBS NewsHour.

“He could be the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, and it wouldn’t matter in these economic times,” said Barker, who directs the university’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

A narrow majority of Americans — 53 percent — approve of how he has handled the coronavirus pandemic, including nearly three-quarters of Black Americans and nine out of 10 of his voters in 2020. But about half of parents with children under age 18 said they don’t like how he has handled COVID – an attitude that is likely influenced by the stalled arrival of a coronavirus vaccine to protect kids under age 5, as well as ongoing debates over masks in schools and other health measures designed to prevent more people from getting severely ill or dying.

WATCH: Border issues, student debt among issues to determine midterm elections, strategists say

While the Biden administration has suggested there is time to turn things around before the midterm elections, consider this lesson from history. Among the last six presidents, four had approval ratings below 50 percent at this point in their first terms, according to Gallup, and their political parties lost dozens of House seats during midterms. Just one of those four presidents improved his approval rating between April and November. It was Donald Trump – and Republicans still lost control of the House in 2018.

Deputy senior politics producer Matt Loffman contributed to this report.

PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll conducted a survey April 19-26 that polled 1,377 U.S. adults (margin of error of 3.4 percentage points) and 1,162 registered voters (margin of error of 3.7 percentage points).