The public’s dour view about the country’s direction is a concerning trend for President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats before next year’s midterm elections. However, the polling data suggest it won’t be easy for Republicans to capitalize.

Biden’s flagging job approval numbers have become fodder for political reporters amid the persistent COVID-19 pandemic and the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. But right direction-wrong track questions — meaning the number of Americans who think the country is headed in the right direction, compared to those who believe it’s on the wrong track — suggest Biden and Democrats will have to message carefully before the 2022 cycle. Meanwhile, Republicans are struggling with their brand.

A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found 7 in 10 respondents were dissatisfied with the country’s direction, and more than 45% were very dissatisfied. Almost 3 in 10 were satisfied, and only 3% were very satisfied.

For top Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy, right direction-wrong track and job approval data helped gauge reelection prospects, with the former contextualizing the latter. The same poll found that more than two-fifths of respondents approved Biden’s job performance, while half disapproved. In August, 46% approved, while 43% disapproved.

“If people feel good about the way things are going in the country, the incumbent benefits from that. And fairly or unfairly, if people feel like things are going badly, they tend to blame the incumbent,” Malloy told the Washington Examiner.

But former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump notched similar levels of satisfaction Biden has now, according to Malloy.

“So obviously, if you’re an incumbent, you’d like the satisfaction number to be higher, but it doesn’t automatically spell doom for reelection, as Obama showed,” he said. “Job approval is a metric for looking at Biden’s reelection prospects, but so much can change between now and 2024.”

Unlike Malloy, Suffolk University Political Research Center Director David Paleologos conceptualized right direction-wrong track data as the leading indicator and job approval as its derivative or equal indicators that capture different trends.

“The approval numbers are more descriptive, not predictive but descriptive, about what the president can and cannot do in the midterm elections,” he said.

To Paleologos, Biden’s job approval would dictate whether 2022 Democratic candidates will want him to stump for them next year as they try to persuade independents and undecided voters. House Democratic Campaigns Chairman Sean Maloney conceded to Bloomberg this week that “of course” he was concerned with the president’s approval ratings.

But before then, Biden’s aides can analyze the right direction-wrong track data to identify his weaknesses, particularly regarding the economy, according to Paleologos. For example, 7% of respondents to a Suffolk University poll last month believed the country was heading in the right direction but disapproved of the president’s handling of the economy.

The same poll found an even split among right direction-wrong track respondents regarding Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal. It also found that a third of wrong-track respondents supported the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social welfare and climate reconciliation plan, while almost three-fifths were against it.

“That may change as people come out and say, ‘Did you know this package was going to spend money on this and that?'” Paleologos said. “It shows some concern if you’re a Republican who was opposing it because not all the fellow wrong trackers are on the same page as you.”

Other worrying numbers for Republicans included one-third of wrong-track respondents disfavoring the GOP, though most were favorable toward it.

“A third of the people who say the country’s on the wrong track also dislike the Republican Party. That’s a branding problem,” Paleologos said. “So if you’re a Democrat, you’re going to say, ‘Sure, things may not be perfect. Some things we’ve handled right, some things we’ve handled wrong. But you don’t want to vote Republican because they’re awful.'”

He added, “If you’re a Republican strategist, you want to make Democrats more radioactive than the negativity against Republicans.”

Right direction-wrong track data was complicated by its “ambiguous meaning” compared to job approval’s “direct evaluation of Biden,” according to Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin.

“Republicans blame Biden. Democrats blame Republicans in Congress and Republican governors. And regardless, COVID is not going well,” he said. “So the partisan effect of wrong direction isn’t as clear in its implications for Democrats generally.”

Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray concurred. For Murray, “each metric, whether it is the direction of the country or the president’s job approval, should contribute to our understanding of both the relative political strength of those in power, as well as the underlying mood of the public.”

“But each measure needs to be interpreted with some nuance — a skill most pundits lack,” he said.