Congressional Republicans and the 2012 Election

by John Sides on February 1, 2012 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics

A journalist writes:

I’m tentatively writing a profile of Eric Cantor, and one of the big-picture aspects of the piece I was hoping to get my head around was the question of who voters hold responsible for congressional intransigence. I’ve always been under the general impression that voters don’t usually differentiate all that much between the parties in their low regard for Congress, even when one party is pretty clearly responsible for Congress’s failings; I’m wondering (a) if that’s actually right, and (b) if so, whether there’s any reason to think based on the evidence that that could change under remarkable circumstances like Cantor et al’s current strategy: the fights over the debt ceiling, payroll tax, etc. I.e., is it reasonable to wonder whether the strategy of legislative intransigence that the Republicans have pursued to great effect since 2009 could actually go too far, and damage the Republican brand with the electorate in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections?

My response was this.  One good place to start is with David Jones and Monika McDermott, who have a book on how congressional approval affects congressional elections.  In short, when approval drops, the majority party loses seats.  I’ve posted about their work here and here.

But I don’t think their work looks at whether congressional tactics (e.g., intransigence) are really to blame for low congressional approval.  It’s important to remember that congressional approval does wax and wane, and that depends a lot on the economy (surprise, surprise).  Although congressional approval does affect congressional elections, above and beyond the effect of the economy.

I don’t know of any research on whether congressional tactics hurt a party’s “brand” and therefore its chances in a presidential election.  Personally, I’m skeptical.  Voting behavior in presidential elections is much more related to presidential approval than congressional approval, as Alan Abramowitz has noted.

{ 5 comments }

reflectionephemeral February 1, 2012 at 4:34 pm

The GOP, of course, has acted out a strategy of rejectionism, offering united & militant opposition to ideas the GOP had supported for decades– Keynesian stimulus, cap and trade, the individual health insurance mandate, the EITC, the debt ceiling, etc.

It’s rather disheartening that this deeply cynical, unpatriotic act by the Republicans might pay off, again, at the ballot box.

It has me worrying that Juan Linz was right. If rational, cynical behavior works, then how does our system of governance work long term?

Andreas Moser February 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I think the Republicans in Congress have alienated independents. So at least they won’t be able to increase their share of the vote beyond the majority that they already have.

I expect the Presidential race to be close, and therefore I wouldn’t expect any large swings in the Senate or the House this year. But in two years, the party of the incumbent will lose again. As always.

Sarah February 1, 2012 at 11:19 pm

I show some (limited) evidence in Stalemate (Brookings 2003) that increases in legislative gridlock drive down congressional approval (controlling for economic conditions, scandals, etc.). In other words, a pox on both their houses.

Having said that, if we had decent data, I suspect we might find in recent years that partisans tend to blame the opposite party, regardless of whether it is the majority or minority at the time (Dems blame GOP for obstruction, GOP blames Dems for failure to govern). Given split party control of Congress and the two branches, you can’t really fault the public for attributing blame that way.

reflectionephemeral February 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm

“Given split party control of Congress and the two branches, you can’t really fault the public for attributing blame that way.”

This is, in large part, because the media is terrible at reporting the news, as James Fallows has pointed out.

To make it clear: requiring 60 votes for everything is new, and it is overwhelmingly a Republican tactic. Unfortunately you would get no hint of that from today’s WaPo story. Every line in it was in keeping with the implication of the photo: partisanship and extremism “on both sides” was bogging the Senate down. … No, it is not hard to tell [who's winning]. Since Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley and the end of the Democrats’ 60-vote majority, Mitch McConnell has flat-out won, and (in my view) the prospects of doing even routine public business have lost, by making the requirement for 60 votes for anything seem normal rather than exceptional. And by eventually leading our major media to present this situation as an “everyone’s to blame” unfortunate and inexplicable snafu, rather than an intended exercise of political power by one side.

See also Fallows on the piece from Mike Lofgren, who retired last year after spending three decades as a GOP Congressional staffer:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner. A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. …

Matt Jarvis February 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm

This was at the core of my dissertation, which basically focused on the effects of legislative productivity on opinions and elections.

Basically, I found that “productivity” benefitted the president most, and the effects on Congressional approval were moderated through presidential approval. I couldn’t find any effect on election results worth noting, at least, nothing consistent and robust. (Note: I put productivity in quotes because of the thorny issues involved in measuring it. I just threw every measure under the sun at it: Binder’s “gridlock”, Mayhew’s “major laws”, and a number of composite measures building off of Edwards et. al.’s revisting of Mayhew’s methodology to count failed attempts at laws, and the same thing with Binder’s data. If effects weren’t relatively robust, I didn’t make much of them) I played around with a bunch of cross-level interactions (yet another reason I didn’t want to revisit the diss…..while I was using HLM to model those correctly, I always had the nagging suspicion that I hadn’t really dealt with autocorrelation at the macro level well at all), and they were somewhat interesting (read: interesting enough to put in the diss, but not interesting enough to try to publish them). Mostly, what I saw were bigger cross-level interactions for education than for partisanship. The most fun cross-level interaction I found was that vetoes caused a major decrease in CONGRESSIONAL approval amongst those who approved of the president (nearly 1% per veto), whereas vetoes only had a small positive effect on congressional approval amongst those who don’t approve of the president.

Now, I’m not in love with the overall research design I employed (biannual NES data), so I never resurrected the diss to make a book or even an article. I think that the Jones & McDermott book is the right source to send someone to.

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