Uncharted Territory in Congressional Disapproval: The Importance of the “My Representative” Question

by Joshua Tucker on September 16, 2011 · 17 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Comparative Politics,Public opinion

As a follow up to my post from earlier this week, here are some incredible new numbers from the latest CBS News/NY Times poll

  • 12% (!) of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job
  • 19% approve of the way Republicans in Congress are handling their job
  • 28% approve of the way Democrats in Congress are handling their job
  • 50% of Republicans disapprove of the way Republicans in Congress are handling their job
  • 6% of registered voters think “members of Congress have earned re-election”.
  • And perhaps most significantly, only 33% of voters say their own representative deserves to be re-elected.

This last number is particularly important because it has often been the case that Americans disapprove of Congress as a whole but think their particular representative is doing a good job (I think this has some catch syndrome-type name, but can’t remember it off hand known as “Fenno’s Paradox”), which helps to explain high re-election rates when there is low Congressional approval. I say that this “helps” to explain this phenomenon because obviously – as was noted in response to my last post on this topic – so too does gerrymandering whereby certain districts are almost impossible for one of the two parties to win. So of course the fact that only 33% of voters think their representative deserves to be re-elected is not going to lead to only 33% of House incumbents getting re-elected. And yet…

Look at these historical numbers from Gallup that were published in May. Bottom line: we have never seen a situation – at least in the years covered by this time series – where support for one’s own representative was so low. While the NY Times has not yet released the full results of the poll so I don’t actually know the numbers in terms of those that believe their representative does not deserve to be re-elected, it does seem very likely that these lines have now crossed. I’m guessing this started sometime in the summer, but either way if it persists until the election, it would again suggest we are in uncharted territory heading into the 2012 elections. If these numbers stay the same, it will be our first Congressional election in the last 20 years (and probably much longer!) where more people think their representative does not deserve to be re-elected than does deserve to be re-elected. And note that the this time period includes 1994, 2006, and 2010, all years in which the House flipped.

One caveat is in order: it may certainly be the case that some people want their Republican to be more conservative or their Democrat to be more liberal, and thus may not think their representative deserves to be re-elected. These types of voters might support a primary challenger, but they are probably unlikely to support a candidate from the other party in a general election. That being said, these voters—if they are unsuccessful in the primary—might choose to stay home in the general election. Alternatively, if they are successful in nominating a more ideologically extreme candidate, this too can have an affect on the general election (read: Christine O’Donnell).

I also can’t help mentioning how this would all play out in Bulgaria. For the last two Bulgarian elections, there has been a brand new party that ran for office on a platform that basically stated “all the other parties are corruption and inept – vote for us because we have integrity and are competent”, and then went on to win about 40% of the vote. (The even more interesting part of the story is that two different parties pursued this strategy successfully, the first one was a party of a member of the pre-communist Bulgarian monarchy, and the second one was the party of his ex-bodyguard!) From a comparativist’s perspective, then, these numbers in the US look unbelievably ripe for the launch of a new party. Indeed, if the United States used proportional representation to elect its legislature, I would have predicted that we undoubtedly would have had a new party in the US in time for the 2012 election. Think about it: don’t you think a party with the slogan of “Take Back Washington: Vote for Competence and Integrity” would do pretty well in this climate???

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