Little import to approval of Congress

As polls proliferate, we are treated to a torrent of data, only some of which yield useful insights or accurate predictions. congressional approval is one of those numbers often invested with false meaning by those not attuned to historical patterns.

Members of Congress want to be loved, which explains their fixation on congressional approval, but the simple truth is that this number is mostly bereft of political import, particularly when control of government is divided, as it is today.

As I’ve noted before, there is no consistent relationship between the level of congressional approval and the electoral fate of the majority party. When approval is low, the party in control can gain many seats, lose a few or lose lots of seats — a pattern indicating approval is not dispositive.

In 1982, just 29 percent approved of the job Congress was doing and the Democrats added 27 seats to their House majority, while the Senate registered no net change.

Congressional approval hit a record low of 18 percent in March 1992 (a figure matched this August). The electoral result was a modest loss of just nine House seats for the Democrats, while there was no change in the Senate.
Gallup measured congressional approval for the first time in 1974, finding it at just 35 percent on election eve. The majority Democrats picked up three Senate seats and 49 in the House that year.

No one should be surprised by the absence of a relationship between congressional approval and electoral fortunes. We do not vote for or against Congress — we vote for or against individuals who represent parties.

It is not voters’ attitudes toward the institution, but rather their relative evaluations of the parties in that institution, that shape the electoral context — and here Democrats continue to wallop Republicans.

The recent ABC/Washington Post poll produced the only discordant note, finding Democrats in Congress with just a four-point margin over Republicans — lower than in any other recent poll. However, the ABC/Post poll itself found favorability ratings for the Democratic Party 12 points higher than those for the GOP, the largest Democratic advantage since the Republicans’ impeachment fiasco in 1999.

Some commentators enjoy the bipartisanship afforded by the argument that negative assessments of Congress produce anti-incumbent elections. In fact, history offers few examples of this particular animal.

By and large, significant congressional losses are sustained by one party or the other. The last time large numbers of Senate incumbents from both parties were defeated was 30 years ago, in 1976 — a year in which over 96 percent of House incumbents were reelected, suggesting “anti-incumbency” is too facile an explanation.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.