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???

{ 17 comments }

Scott Monje September 16, 2011 at 11:57 am

Fenno’s Paradox

Joshua Tucker September 16, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Thanks Scott!

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Uh, hold on a minute. You misread the Gallup graph.

As the graph illustrates, Gallup is showing that 57% DO think their rep deserves re-election (34% does not). What’s interesting, however, is that Gallup’s numbers are almost the exact reverse of the NYT/CBS poll, which says 33% think their rep deserves re-election, while 57% say he does not.

Something doesn’t add up here.

Joshua Tucker September 16, 2011 at 1:38 pm

On misreading, see my longer comment below.

On the discrepancy btwn Gallup and NYT data, Gallup data is only through May, 2011. NY Times Data is Sept. 2011. My assumption was that the underlying sentiment had changed over the summer in the aftermath of the debt-ceiling debate. It may be the case that Gallup and NYT are asking different questions, but still my main point was that – at least with Gallup data – No on own rep had never exceeded yes on own rep, but now with NY Times data it does – substantially!

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I’m actually really puzzled as to what you are actually looking at. All I can think of is you were primed by the NYT report and that caused you to misread the Gallup report. But not only do you have the Gallup numbers backwards but 2 other things you say don’t square with the numbers are reported:

1) Having misread the Gallup graph you also go on to say that we have never seen a situation where support for one’s own rep was so low. But even if you reverse the labels on the lines and you take the does not deserve line to be the does deserve line, that is not the low point in that series — there are at least 2 points clearly labeled 17% and 19%.

2) You say, “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”. But they DID release those numbers already. In the story you linked to they say, “Just 33 percent of voters say their own representative in Congress deserves to be re-elected, and 57 percent say it’s time to elect someone else.”

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm

What IS at a low point is not, as you say, support for one’s own representative but support for “most members of Congress.” But it is not an unpreceented low point. Gallup shows basically the same numbers in 1993, and the entire series from 1999-2003.

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Maybe it does add up. Those Gallup numbers are from back in May — before the debt ceiling debacle. They seemed to conflict with the NYT/CBS numbers but we really need to see a more recent reask from Gallup.

Joshua Tucker September 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

The Fool: No, that’s precisely my point: we’ve never had a situation before where so many people think there rep does *not* deserve to be re-elected. So exact opposite from what we have seen previously, when % wanting to re-elect their own member *always* exceeded percentage not wanting to re-elect their own member. Gallup shows historically % wanting re-elect own member always exceeded percentage not wanting to re-elect own member.

Good catch on the 57% in the NY Times article – I missed that number. But that just drives my point home even more. In the Gallup data, those wanting *not* to re-elect own member *never* exceeded those wanting to re-elect own member; now almost twice as many say “time to elect someone else” than re-elect own representative.

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Got it — assuming that when Gallup reasks the question their numbers will fall in line with NYT/CBS.

I’d like to see the NYT/CBS time series, as well as the exact question wording in both polls.

Joshua Tucker September 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Ok, glad to have cleared that up.

I agree, would be great to get CBS/NYT time series. Do you know if they archive this sort of thing anywhere?

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 1:55 pm

I think you have to get it from Roper or some other gated source.

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Your wording was confusing when you said, “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.” Taken literally, this amounts to claiming that Gallup’s 57% “yes, does deserve re-election” number was the lowest it had ever been, when the graph shows several lower points than that. I think what you really should have said is that feelings that one’s own rep does not deserve re-election have never been HIGHER (although even that is not strictly true since it was higher in 2010).

In any case, point taken: a somewhat larger than usual number of people in Gallup — even back in May — thought their rep didn’t deserve reelection. And you are right, if Gallup reasks the question and gets anything like CBS/NYT’s current number that will be a huge change.

NJ Dem September 16, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Just did a quick roper search for Gallup. Found a survey from August (4th to 7th) where 54% say they *would* re-elect their representative.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/148904/Record-Low-Say-Congress-Deserve-Election.aspx

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Wow. So Gallup’s numbers got even worse on the “most members” question and are almost the same on the “your member” question, which is to say that even after the debt ceiling debacle Gallup’s numbers are still the mirror image of CBS/NYT. That’s a real mystery.

There is a difference in wording. Gallup just asks if your member deserves reelection or not, while CBS/NYT asks if your member deserves reelection or if it’s time for someone else. I wouldn’t expect much difference, but if anything I would expect the CBS/NYT wording to get somewhat less negative results than Gallup’s wording since it requires respondents to go an extra step and not only say their rep doesn’t deserve reelection but also that someone else DOES deserve a chance.

Very strange. Clearly somebody’s numbers are wrong. And it makes a big difference who is right. I wonder who is right!

The Fool September 16, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Did you find any trend numbers for CBS/NYT?

Coerton September 16, 2011 at 8:05 pm

| “…here are some incredible new numbers from the latest CBS News/NY Times poll ” |

Use of the adjective “incredible” may not be the best word choice here.

Then again, the non-response rates in these telephone polls (..well over 75%) negate any formal validity of the attempted probability sampling, and any conclusions on the general population under study.

Incredible {?}

Noumenon September 17, 2011 at 11:22 am

Thanks to the Fool for figuring out why this post seemed to say the opposite of its graphs.

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