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Toxic Congress: Dose of Electoral Uncertainty

Earlier this year, a CBS News poll showed Congress’ job approval at 12 percent, while CNN had it at 16 percent in mid-December and Gallup had it at 11 percent at the same time.

Given those stunningly low numbers, it isn’t surprising that Democratic strategists figure that running against Congressional Republicans is a way for President Barack Obama to win re-election and for Democrats to retake the House.

But, Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport observed in a September 2011 release, “Americans have never responded very positively when asked to rate Congress.” Newport notes that since his polling firm began asking Americans about Congress, the institution’s average job approval rating has been a mere 34 percent.

There have been upticks and even spikes of approval, of course, including shortly after Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, early in Obama’s term and after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But ordinarily, Congress as an institution has been viewed more as a problem than a solution.

Still, Congress’ current standing is remarkable for the extent of its unpopularity.

For the past few months, more than eight in 10 Americans have disapproved of Congress’ performance, according to recent polling conducted by all of the major national media organizations — a level of dissatisfaction that is far greater than the public’s dissatisfaction with the performance of the president.

If Democrats can make the presidential election into a choice between the president, whose job approval is in the mid-40s, and House Republicans, with a job approval hovering around 10 percent, Obama would have a solid chance of winning a second term.

Indeed, the president has already begun to sprinkle his speeches liberally with criticisms of Congressional Republicans, portraying them as driven by partisanship and tea party extremism in opposing his agenda. An Obama re-election campaign based on Harry Truman’s successful, come-from-
behind model seems likely.

And if Democrats can make the fight for the House into a referendum on Congress or, even better, the tea party, they could possibly defeat dozens of GOP incumbents and win more than their expected share of open seats.

After all, Gallup found Congress’ job approval sitting at 23 percent in late October 1994, only days before Republicans netted 54 seats and won control of the House that November. Congress’ approval was in the mid-20s when Democrats gained 30 seats and won back the speakership in 2006. And two years ago, when Republicans netted 63 House seats, Congress’ job approval was right around 20 percent.

But applying the lessons from 1994, 2006 and 2010 to this year’s elections ignores important differences between those years and the current one.

First, those three elections were midterms and each one was more of a referendum on an unpopular president (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama) than on Congress. The only way for voters to signal their dissatisfaction was to vote against candidates of the president’s party, and in each case that is exactly what voters did.

This year, the president is on the ballot, so voters have the opportunity to cast two very different votes. More importantly, Republicans will have their own nominee for president, who will be articulating his agenda and comparing his abilities and vision with the president’s.

When October rolls around, voters are likely to compare Obama to the GOP nominee for president, not the president to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) or Congress. 

Second, during the elections of 1994, 2006 and 2010, one party controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, so it was clear who was in control and who was responsible for the condition of the country.

This year, Republicans control the House but Democrats control the presidency and the Senate. Each party will be able to blame the other for gridlock and for the nation’s problems.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that both parties will share the blame equally, but it makes it difficult for Democrats to blame Boehner and his House GOP colleagues, especially because voters tend to give the president credit or blame when they are assigning it.

Congress’ poor ratings inevitably raise the possibility of an “anti-
incumbent election.”

I have written entire columns over the years noting that we don’t have
“anti-incumbent elections” — where large numbers of incumbents of both parties lose re-election. Normally, one party or the other suffers the bulk of the losses because voters tend to blame one political party for their dissatisfaction.

Of course, we are in a time when political rules seem to break more easily, so the combination of Congress’ historically low approval ratings and redistricting (forcing incumbents to run in new territory) could produce a large number of primary and general election defeats.

One of the problems with trying to translate Congress’ unpopularity into votes against incumbents is that polls present a mixed message.

An Aug. 5-7 CNN poll of adults found that only 41 percent of those polled said that their Member of Congress deserves re-election, while 49 percent said that their Representative does not.

“The 41 percent, in the polling world, is an amazing figure,” CNN polling director Keating Holland said in an article on the cable network’s website.

But almost at the same time, Aug. 4-7, a Gallup Poll of registered voters found 54 percent of respondents saying that the Representative in their district “deserves to be re-elected,” while only 34 percent said that their Representative did not deserve to be re-elected.

Finally, and possibly even more important, it’s also far from clear where voters place blame for Congress’ failures.

Republicans who disapprove of Congress’ performance may simply blame Democrats, while Democrats blame Republicans. If that is what happens, there is no reason for those partisans to change their voting behavior in 2012 even though they both disapprove of Congress’ performance.

In that case, the creation of an anti-incumbent or anti-Congress wave would depend on independents voting almost unanimously against one party. But unable to blame a single party in control of both Congress and the White House, they are likely to be conflicted. And if they do blame one of the political parties disproportionately, it’s more likely to be the president’s, not the Speaker’s.

Congress is more unpopular than it has ever been. That’s certainly reason to watch for the possibility of unusually large Congressional defeats and to entertain the possibility that Obama can win re-election, in part, by contrasting his performance with Congress’. Just don’t bet on it.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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