'Vice presidents just don't break through.' Why are Kamala Harris' approval ratings lower than Biden's?
WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris’ latest poll numbers aren’t just bad, they’re late night comedy-fodder bad.
ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel mock-pondered last week how Harris’ job approval rating could be even lower than President Joe Biden’s, when “she basically has nothing to do.”
“It’s like criticizing a backup quarterback,” Kimmel said. “'Tom Brady is OK. I don’t love the way Blaine Gabbert has his legs folded on the bench.'”
The problem for Democrats, however, is that Harris, 57, is very much the backup for the 78-year-old Biden and expected to try to succeed him if he doesn’t seek a second turn.
And as the first woman, Black American and South Asian American to serve as vice president, there’s also been extra scrutiny of how she handles the role.
Only 28% of registered voters participating this month in a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll approved of her job performance.
Biden’s job approval rating, while still bad, was 10 percentage points higher.
So what’s going on?
Here’s what we know from the poll numbers and from what experts told us.
Why are Harris' ratings low?
She’s the No. 2 in the Biden administration and her boss’s numbers are not good.
Vice presidential favorability and job approval ratings are overwhelmingly influenced by how the president is doing, according to a 2017 study by political scientist Jody Baumgartner.
There's no reason to think that’s changed with Harris, despite the historic nature of her vice presidency, he said.
“I think there's plenty of people who don't know who she is, and even if they do, they have no idea what she’s doing or what she’s not doing,” said Baumgartner, who teaches at East Carolina University. “Vice presidents just don't break through.”
Vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein said any vice president would want higher poll numbers than Harris has. But the current polarization of politics “probably limits the ceilings of presidents and vice presidents in ways that wasn't once the case," he added.
“As the Democrats begin to focus on the programs involved in Build Back Better and the infrastructure bills and as vaccination rates improve,” he said, “presumably Biden's and Harris' numbers will improve.”
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said it cannot be overstated how Harris' low ratings are anchored to Biden's drastic decline in popularity. His public support fell 14 percentage points between June and mid-October, according to Gallup.
Ultimately, she said, it is the president who is responsible for steering the ship.
"This administration is going to rise and fall on the decisions that Joe Biden makes," Gillespie said. "And so Kamala Harris can't be the scapegoat every time Joe Biden has a bad day."
Why is Harris' job approval rating worse than Biden’s?
One reason Harris isn’t getting numbers as high as Biden is due to a noticeable dip among Democrats in general, and especially from African Americans, a major constituency.
Eighty-three percent of Democrats approve of Biden’s job performance compared with 63% who approve of the job Harris is doing, according to the poll.
Likewise, 72% of Black voters give Biden high marks versus 51% of the same voting bloc who likes Harris’ job performance.
"Black voters for Kamala Harris should be in the 80%-90% approve,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “Those are numbers that have got to be higher."
Further down the tabulations, the survey shows liberals like what Biden is doing significantly more (81%) than they approve of Harris’ performance (56%).
Those differences are at least twice the spread of Biden’s 10 percentage point advantage among all voters.
Why isn’t Harris doing better among Black voters?
Ricky L. Jones, chairman of Pan-African studies at the University of Louisville, said besides visibility, the vice president is also weighed down by a significant bloc of Black progressive-minded voters who soured on Harris – and parts of her record as a California prosecutor – during her failed presidential bid.
"I think the 'Kamala is a cop' analysis and a number of other things showed her to be a brazen and opportunistic political animal," Jones said. "And it is something that worries anybody who actually pays attention to politics and pays attention to her career."
The "Kamala is a cop" meme was used by many left-leaning activists, who hammered Harris in 2019 for her time as a prosecutor at a time when progressives were leaning into criminal justice reform.
That’s it. I can’t take it.
It isn’t (only) that Kamala was a top cop. It’s that *she called herself a top cop*.
Some voters registered the difference, even if they couldn’t articulate it.
— Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) December 4, 2019
Harris exited the race in December 2019 just before the Iowa caucuses, following reports of division within her campaign, struggles to raise campaign cash and plummeting poll numbers.
In her home state of California, for instance, a July 2019 poll of likely Democratic primary voters put her in first place with 19%, but by September. Harris had plunged to 8%, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
"I think if she runs for president in the next cycle, I think she gets beaten in the primaries again," Jones said. "I don't think she'll get traction."
Evelyn M. Simien, a University of Connecticut political science professor, said Harris' historic status as vice president will always be tied by some Black voters to her past role in the criminal justice system and the racial implications of that debate.
"There's no sort of getting around it when it comes to her current role as VP," she said.
Simien adds how there is a sentiment that Harris is being trotted out as a prop while the administration has done little of substance for Black voters.
"There could be criticism leveled against her, is she symbolizing sort of a mammy figure?" she said. "You know, for Black women, is she reduced to nothing more than a symbol?"
Months after taking office Biden gave his vice president two significant issues to lead – addressing the root causes of migration at the southern border and protecting voting rights.
But in the Washington wilderness, those issues have borne few fruits.
"African Americans want deliverables," Simien said. "And we see no progress with regard to voting rights."
Are there other reasons Harris' job approval rating is worse than Biden’s?
Yes. The good news for Harris is that, unlike with Biden, many voters are still forming an opinion of her.
About 1 in 5 respondents are unable to rate her job performance. By contrast, only 3% of those surveyed don't have an opinion of how well Biden is doing.
Among Black, white and Hispanic voters, African Americans are the most likely to be undecided about how she’s doing. Twenty-eight percent of Black voters didn't have an opinion compared with 20% of whites and 16% of Hispanics.
What about disapproval ratings?
Biden’s 51% job disapproval rating is 8 percentage points worse than Harris’, and his 58% unfavorability rating is 5 points worse.
The fact that Biden’s positives and negatives are both higher than Harris’ could again be a reflection that he is better known.
"VPs are less visible than presidents, and accordingly more people are apt not to have an opinion about them," said Goldstein, the vice presidential scholar.
Is it common for people to not have an opinion on the vice president?
When Suffolk University conducted a poll in late 2017 and asked voters about Vice President Mike Pence, 21% did not have an opinion.
At the start of Vice President Al Gore’s final year in office, 10% of those surveyed by Gallup could not identify him.
In a 2008 survey, 15% could not name Vice President Joe Biden. When he was in his fourth year as President Barack Obama’s vice president, one survey showed 21% could not identify him, according to the 2017 study on vice presidents.
Paleologos, the pollster, said the survey reflects how people don’t know what Harris is doing or what her role is in the administration.
"He’s the face of the Biden administration," Paleologos said. "She’s not. That’s what it boils down to.”
"She’s in a no-win situation in that she’s going to be judged by lower job approval as long as she doesn’t have a role that she can sink her teeth into, that people will identify her with, with a successful outcome," he added. "Obviously, immigration and border control is not working, and that’s the only visibility, really, that she has.”
Is it common for the vice president’s ratings to be below the presidents?
Pence’s favorability rating was very close to Trump’s the seven times Suffolk University polled on that question in 2017 and 2018. Pence’s unfavorability rating, however, was much better than Trump’s.
Seven months into Obama’s presidency, Obama's favorability rating was much higher than Biden’s and his unfavorable score was slightly lower, according to a Gallup survey.
During the first seven years of the George W. Bush administration, the president’s favorability rating averaged seven points better than Vice President Dick Cheney’s score, according to Gallup.
From 1993 through 2000, Americans’ perceptions of President Bill Clinton and Gore were generally similar, Gallup reported. The exceptions were a 1994 poll in which Gore did significantly better and two readings in the second term when there were larger-than-normal gaps between the two.
Is Harris’ favorability rating better than her job approval number?
Yes, but not that much better.
The dismal 34% who view her favorably is also lower than Biden’s 39%, although the difference is not as large as when respondents were asked about job performance. And 12% were undecided, compared with 3% who did not have a favorable or unfavorable view of Biden.
Simien, the University of Connecticut professor, said that could represent how Harris remains well-liked among Democrats and their base versus how those same voters view what she's accomplished thus far.
"I do think there's a difference between sort of a favorability rating and cultural pride versus approval and disapproval," she said. "In terms of job performance, we really don't see her other than standing alongside (Biden) with her hands folded."
Which voters give Harris the highest ratings?
When voters are broken out by sex, age, race, party and where they live, the only groups that give her a job approval or favorability rating above 50% are Democrats, Blacks and Hispanics.
Is that different for Biden?
Which voters gave Harris the lowest ratings?
Republicans (2% approval), 65-plus voters (17% approval), independents (19% approval), whites (20% approval) and men (22% approval).
Is that different for Biden?
For example, only 2% of Republicans approve of either Biden’s or Harris’s job performance. But Biden did poll at least 8 percentage points higher than Harris among independents (28% approval), whites (28% approval), 65-plus voters (28% approval) and men (31% approval).
What about women?
Women voters give higher marks to Biden (44% job approval) than Harris (34% job approval), but the 10 percentage point difference is the same as the split among all voters.
Are racism and sexism a factor?
Experts who study race and politics say Harris's role as the first woman of color to ascend to the vice presidency can't be overlooked in how she's being viewed but that there's more to why her numbers are in the dirt so early.
"I think it's lazy analysis if you do not include race and gender in this exploration," Jones, the University of Louisville professor, told USA TODAY. "But I also think it's lazy analysis if you restrict it to race and gender in this exploration."
Gillespie, the Emory University political scientist whose research focuses on post-civil rights leadership in African American politics, said given Harris' historic nature, any polling on the current vice president warrants a deeper examination before supporters or critics jump to conclusions.
"There does need to be given serious consideration about the ways that bias are influencing how she is perceived publicly," Gillespie said.
"She can't change who she is. She can't change the body that she inhabits. So we have to consider the ways that her race and gender are factoring into evaluations of her."
Is the most recent poll an outlier?
On average, Harris holds a 41% favorable and 52% unfavorable rating across surveys conducted since the Biden administration took office, according to poll tracking by the Los Angeles Times.
That’s better than the 34% favorable and 53% unfavorable rating in the USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll.
But it’s about 4 points worse than Pence at this point, according to the LA Times tracker. It is also 18 points worse than Biden when he was vice president; 52 points worse than Cheney; and 39 points worse than Gore.
What do we know about the poll?
This survey of 1,000 registered voters was conducted between Nov. 3-5. It was taken by landline and cellphone and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris: VP has poor poll numbers as many voters are undecided
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