Congress is very unpopular. Like President Obama, Congress has seen its approval rating decline in recent months. But Congress is a good deal less popular than the President. According to the Gallup Poll, Mr. Obama’s approval rating has been hovering in the vicinity of 50% recently but in December only 25% of Americans approved of the job that the 111th Congress was doing. That was a little better than the 19% that approved of the job that the 110th Congress was doing in January of 2009 but quite a bit worse than the 39% that approved in March of 2009 which was the high point for the 111th Congress.
Low approval ratings are nothing new for Congress. According to Gallup, the last time Congress enjoyed an approval rating of 50% or higher was in June of 2003. That was back when Congress and President Bush were still benefiting from the rally effect produced by the 9-11 terror attacks. In fact, since 1974, Congress has received an approval rating of 50% or higher only 29 of the 199 times the public has been asked about its performance in the Gallup Poll and a majority of those positive ratings occurred during the two years following the 9-11 attacks. Nor are low approval ratings limited to one party. The Republican-controlled 109th Congress had an average approval rating of 30% while the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress had an average approval rating of 23%.
Congress is usually less popular than the president and frequently much less popular. However, there is a fairly strong positive relationship between presidential and congressional approval. Figure 1 displays the relationship between presidential and congressional approval from 1980 to 2008 based on data from the American National Election Studies. The data show that when the president is more popular, Congress tends to be more popular and when the president is less popular, Congress tends to be less popular. Moreover, this is true even when Congress and the presidency are controlled by different parties. For the entire time period, the correlation between presidential and congressional approval is .75. For the 10 years in which Congress and the presidency were controlled by different parties, the correlation is still a very strong .66. This may indicate that evaluations of Congress are influenced by evaluations of the president or that both are influenced by feelings about the condition of the country and the overall performance of the federal government.
Figure 1. Congressional Approval by Presidential Approval, 1980-2008
Source: American National Election Studies. Note: No survey conducted in 2006.
Discontent with Congress appears to reflect a widespread perception of the legislative process as complicated, inefficient, and corrupt. Americans find it hard to understand how Congress works and most of the information that they get about Congress from the media tends to be negative—focusing on partisan conflict, controversies, and scandals. But voters don’t blame their own Senators or their own Representative for these problems. As the noted congressional scholar Richard Fenno has observed, Americans generally love their own congressperson even though they dislike Congress. They tend to see their own Senators and Representatives as the rare good apples in an otherwise rotten barrel. And, of course, individual Senators and Representatives do their best to encourage this perception. That explains why, despite the low ratings that Congress usually receives, reelection rates for congressional incumbents have remained very high—averaging around 95% for House incumbents and 80% for Senate incumbents over the past three decades.
Discontent with Congress does not lead to a general tendency to kick out incumbents. Occasionally voters do get upset and give the boot to a large number of incumbents—but they almost always take out their dissatisfaction on the members of only one party—the president’s party. Thus, in 1994, when voters gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 50 years, all 34 House incumbents and both Senate incumbents who lost their seats were Democrats. Not a single Republican incumbent was defeated. Similarly, in 2006, when voters returned the Democrats to power in Congress, all 22 House incumbents and all 6 Senate incumbents who lost their seats were Republicans. Not a single Democratic incumbent was defeated.
Table 1. Percentage Voting Democratic by Evaluations of Congress and President Bush in 2006
Source: 2006 National Exit Poll.
This brings up the most important point about evaluations of Congress. They have very little influence on how Americans vote in congressional elections. When it comes to choosing candidates for Congress, it is opinions of the president’s performance that matter. This can be seen in Table 1 which displays the relationship between House vote and evaluations of President Bush and the Republican Congress in 2006. The results in this table show that voting decisions in 2006 were driven by evaluations of President Bush. Regardless of how they felt about Congress, voters who approved of President Bush voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates while voters who disapproved of President Bush voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.
Some political observers have suggested that Congress’s low approval rating could have a major impact on the 2010 midterm elections. But low approval ratings are nothing new for Congress—it has been more than six years since Congress had an approval rating of 50% or higher in the Gallup Poll. Since 1974, when Gallup began asking this question on a regular basis, Congress has received an average approval rating of 50% or higher in only 2 years: 2002 and 2003 following the 9-11 attacks. Congress is almost always unpopular. However, opinions of Congress appear to have little or no influence on voting decisions in congressional elections. Despite the unpopularity of Congress, incumbents have enjoyed very high reelection rates throughout this period. Moreover, evaluations of Congress appear to have little or no influence on which party voters prefer in congressional elections. It is the president’s performance that matters when it comes to choosing between a Republican and Democratic candidate for Congress. In November, Democratic fortunes will depend on how voters feel about President Obama, not how they feel about Congress.