Does It Matter If Everyone Hates Congress?

by John Sides on February 12, 2010 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics

This is apropos of Josh’s post below. The New York Times story he cites says:

The poll suggests that both parties face a toxic environment as they prepare for the elections in November. Public disapproval of Congress is at a historic high, and huge numbers of Americans think Congress is beholden to special interests. Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans say members of Congress deserve re-election.

Here is some relevant analysis from Alan Abramowitz. He makes several important points. First, approval of Congress is strongly correlated with presidential approval, even under divided government:

The data show that when the president is more popular, Congress tends to be more popular and when the president is less popular, Congress tends to be less popular. Moreover, this is true even when Congress and the presidency are controlled by different parties.

Why? He posits that opinions of both are related to underlying structural features, such as the economy:

This may indicate that evaluations of Congress are influenced by evaluations of the president or that both are influenced by feelings about the condition of the country and the overall performance of the federal government.

And of course there is this truism, which somewhat undercuts the notion that incumbents are threatened by low congressional approval:

As the noted congressional scholar Richard Fenno has observed, Americans generally love their own congressperson even though they dislike Congress. They tend to see their own Senators and Representatives as the rare good apples in an otherwise rotten barrel.

To speak to Josh’s question about bipartisan anti-incumbent voting, Abramowitz writes:

Discontent with Congress does not lead to a general tendency to kick out incumbents. Occasionally voters do get upset and give the boot to a large number of incumbents—but they almost always take out their dissatisfaction on the members of only one party—the president’s party.

Finally, and most importantly, and please please shout this from the rooftops:

This brings up the most important point about evaluations of Congress. They have very little influence on how Americans vote in congressional elections. When it comes to choosing candidates for Congress, it is opinions of the president’s performance that matter.

{ 4 comments }

Leah February 12, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I polled my intro government courses using clickers, expecting to get a major disapproval of the institution with major approval of local members, and they loved Congress as an institution more than our local member. It made me wonder when we learn to hate Congress – these are mostly 18-19 year old kids.

Matt Jarvis February 12, 2010 at 9:45 pm

On the opposite side, Hibbing and Tiritilli (sp?) argue that 1994 was the product of both high congressional disapproval AND high knowledge of which party was in control of Congress.

I’m not sure I buy it fully, but they present an interesting argument.

Dan Tarrant February 14, 2010 at 7:05 pm

John, don’t you think that in any opinion poll that “special interests” is a loaded term?

I think that’s code for “other people’s interests”…

Adam February 15, 2010 at 6:14 pm

In his Tides of Consent book, Jim Stimson thoroughly documents the trends that Abramowitz “posits.”

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