The share of Republican voters who appear open to Biden is smaller, but not insignificant: In the CNN poll, roughly one in five Republican and GOP-leaning voters said they believe he would be, at least, a fairly successful president. About the same number said they view him favorably. Overall, about 60 percent of adults gave Biden positive marks on each question.
Those findings underscore Biden’s potential to expand his audience. For almost all of this century, as the parties have grown more polarized, presidents have only rarely attracted support from as much as 55 percent of Americans. Trump became the only president in the history of the Gallup Poll never to reach even 50 percent approval at any point in his tenure.
Anzalone told me that although he’s not “looking [to set] expectations,” he believes that Biden could begin with a much broader base of support than Trump ever amassed. Given Biden’s strong marks in polls during the transition, he said, the new president has a chance for his job-approval rating “to approach or exceed 60 percent … which is really difficult in this environment.”
In both parties, many operatives are doubtful that Biden could sustain such expansive support for any prolonged period. But even an approval rating consistently over 50 percent might make more Republicans comfortable voting with him—and also improve the Democrats’ odds of avoiding major losses in the next midterm elections, which are typical for a president’s party in his first term.
The key dynamic for the next two years: Biden, a politician with an instinct for outreach, is arriving precisely as Trump’s presidency has left many traditionally Republican-leaning voters unmoored and uncertain. Those disaffected Republicans, Donovan noted, “demographically and otherwise match the sorts of people who have been fleeing the party to begin with. That paints the opportunity [for Biden] there. I think it’s real, and it’s only going to continue absent some other shift [in the GOP] we’ve not seen yet.”
It’s entirely possible that the scale and ambition of the Democratic agenda will unite Republican elected officials and voters alike in opposition, allowing them to bridge their differences over Trump’s legacy and future role in the party. That may even be the most likely outcome of Biden’s first two years. But as Trump leaves Washington stained by the Capitol riot, it’s no longer the guaranteed outcome. The GOP faces the alternative prospect of a bitter fissure between its Trumpist wing and its more traditional faction, which will play out through every legislative choice the party faces, starting immediately with the former president’s Senate impeachment trial. All of that tension and turmoil leaves an opening for Biden big enough to drive an Amtrak train through.