The Gallup data above won’t take anyone by surprise. People don’t like Congress. I’ve always assumed, however, that this sentiment wasn’t consequential. After all, most people do like (and vote for) their member of Congress, even if they hate the institution.
But I may be wrong. And, if I am wrong, House Republicans should be concerned.
That’s the implication of a recently published book—Americans, Congress, and Democratic Responsiveness—by David Jones and Monika McDermott. You can also find a distillation of part of their argument in this ungated article (pdf) by Jones.
Here’s the rub: when people dislike Congress, they punish members of the House majority and reward members of the minority. Opinions about Congress are important even when controlling for other things that affect congressional elections, such as approval of the president or economic conditions in the country. In the article, Jones finds that a ten-point decrease in approval would cost majority-party incumbents about 4 points at the polls. It would also help minority-party incumbents by a smaller amount (just over 1 point). Even more consequential for elections, these effects are larger in swing districts. And they are not going away anytime soon. Jones finds that the effect of congressional approval grew as the parties polarized, and polarized parties are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
What does this imply about the seats that will be won and lost in 2012? Jones and McDermott estimate that, in the 1974-2006 elections, a 10-point decrease in approval led to a loss of 17-seats, on average.
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz recently noted that Democrats could possibly regain the majority in the House in 2012. This low ebb in congressional approval, if it continues, will likely help.