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Congressional Approval Polls: Meaningless and Unhelpful

I’ve been reading and watching internet and other media breathlessly report the “unprecedented” (1) low approval levels of Congress (14% by CNN in August 2011) and wondering what the implications of this seething anger at Congress will be. First, it’s not unprecedented. Gallup measured a 14% approval rating in July 2008 (2).

More importantly, the very idea of  an “approval rating of Congress” is a worthless concept that only serves to stroke frustration. We don’t elect a Congress. In 435 US House Districts across the United States, people vote for their Representative and two Senators. If we like the incumbent, we re-elect them. If we don’t, they get turned out of office.  Anecdotally, people in Alaska are VERY dissatisfied with Congress. While I couldn’t find a poll, I think that an approval rating of 10-15% wouldn’t be out of line. If you have a poll to share about how Alaskans feel about Congress, let me know.

What I do have is a poll from Dittman Research (3) from April 2011 that gives these combined Good/Very Good figures for our Congressional delegation:

Senator Begich – 58%
Senator Murkowski – 71%
Representative Young – 63%

I freely admit the figures above are before the debt fight, but I couldn’t find anything more recent for our Congressional delegation. There is a poll out from CNN/ORC (4) from August 9, 2011 that states that less than half of Americans think that their Representative deserves to be reelected. But I think there are several problems with this poll:

1) The question about whether you’d vote to retain your current representative of Congress is after several questions about the popularity of national party figures. If someone is reminded of their unhappiness of their Rep’s party leadership, that disapproval might carry over to the “Does your Representative deserve to be reelected?” question. If the question had been asked in isolation, you might have gotten a different answer.

2) We’re still lumping 435 House Districts into one question. A district by district breakdown could distinguish between most House Incumbents having a lack of support or a large number with comfortable support along with a small number of despised Representatives.

3) A House election isn’t about retention, it’s about replacement. Voting someone out means we vote someone else in. We may not like our Representative, but we may like the alternative less. I’m a good example along these lines. I don’t think President Obama deserves to be re-elected for reasons related to torture and civil liberties. But given the chance to go back to 2008, I still would have voted for him over McCain/Palin. Similarly, if the Republicans insist on nominating someone who will never raise taxes while finding new countries to invade, I could probably be induced to vote for Obama’s reelection even though I don’t think he deserves it.

Given these problems, this poll is meaningless as well. So what’s the harm in meaningless polls? To me, the harm is in the expectation of change these kind of polls create. Joe in Des Moines reads a poll like this and says “Ah, now The People are really pissed off and will REALLY clean house!” On election day, Joe votes for his Representative and maybe one of his Senators since he views them as part of the solution and not like the corrupt bastards of other states. The next day he nearly chokes on his coffee when it looks like only 20 seats out of 435 have changed. Rather than considering that people in other House Districts might have  followed his psychology, Joe concludes that “the elites” (whether left or right) have once again stolen the election to promote the status quo. He feels a little more helpless and a little more angry.

The moral of the story – stay away from meaningless measures and use a tool like Open Congress to monitor the work of your Congressional delegation. Then make an informed choice and encourage others to the same. Congress might not change much, but you’ll feel less bitter. And if enough us vote based on the actual performance of our Members of Congress, maybe things will change.


(1) Gallup July 11, 2011
Congress’ Approval Entrenched at 18% as Debt Talks Continue: Democrats remain slightly more positive than Republicans or independents

(2) Gallup July 16, 2008
Congressional Approval Hits Record-Low 14%: Democrats less positive than Republicans about Congress

(3) Dittman Research Alaska Poll April 2011

(4) CNN/ORC Poll August 9, 2011
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/images/08/09/poll.aug9.pdf (see page 8 for results on “your member” – perhaps primed by mention of unpopular politicians?)

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