Friday, July 25, 2008

White House approval ratings versus Congressional approval ratings

A comment from Noah got me thinking about those abysmal Congressional approval ratings. Dems generally ignore that data, while the GOP hacks crow that this shows the Dems are even more unpopular than the GOP. The logic here is that whereas Congress (approval rating: 9%) is controlled by the Dems, the White House (approval rating: 27%) is controlled by the GOP.

Except, of course, it's not that simple. The White House is and has been 100% controlled by the head of the GOP for seven and a half years. To some extent the disapproval of Bush is personal to him and not to his party, but these are clearly very closely aligned entities. Congress is a different story. First of all, it's only about 55% controlled by the Dems, and 45% by the GOP. Second, the Dems have only been in control for the last year and a half. Clearly people are angry (or maybe scared) about the direction of the country, and clearly they blame that direction on Washington, including partly (maybe largely) Congress. But it's not clear to me that they're blaming the Democrats in Congress. It may be that they're pissed about something more complicated, that might run something like this: for the last decade Congress has become hugely corrupt, not only doing nothing to restrain pork barrel spending, but also failing to address the most pressing issues facing the country [name your pet issue: education, health care, social security]. I tend to think that people think of that characterization as being a nonpartisan truth. In sum, there's no equivalence to the approval rating of "the White House" (which is always controlled by one party and really identified with one person) and the approval rating of "Congress" (a collective body that people have highly various feelings about).

What makes things even more complicated is that even though Congress's overall approval rating is in the single digits, gerrymandering means that most people give their own Congressperson a relatively high approval rating. There's no reason at all to think that the incumbent reelection rate will fall below its usual 95-96 percent rate. Where things may get sticky, however, is for Senators, who can't gerrymander away the voters who hate Congress's general performance. This is why things are looking so disastrous for the GOP in the Senate this year. The GOP is defending twice as many seats as the Democrats, since it's been six years since Bush cleaned up in the 2002 midterms after using 9/11 to hammer the Democrats (c.f. Max Cleland). The Dems have only twelve seats at play. The GOP has already had five announced retirements, and eighteen more GOP Senators are up for reelection. As many as four of those could go Dem in the Fall (Stevens's seat in Alaska, Coleman in Minnesota, Smith in Oregon, and Sununu in New Hampshire).

Bottom line: both the Bush approval ratings and the congressional approval rating augur ill for the GOP.

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