American Voters Still Schizophrenic When It Comes To Congress

Once again, Americans hate Congress but seem to love their Congressperson.

Scott Clement, The Washington Post’s Poll Watcher takes note of a phenomenon that has been true in American politics for a long time, as much as Americans say they hate Congress, they still like their Congressman:

A record-high 76 percent of Americans say most members of Congress don’t deserve to be reelected, according to a Gallup poll released Friday. That number has actually risen since the panicked days after the debt ceiling showdown. But in a sort of Lake Wobegon effect, a 51 percent majority believes their own House representative deserves another term.

The schism between views of Congress overall and of one’s own congressman is larger in 2011 than at any point in the past two decades. Indeed, the percentage saying their own representative deserves to be reelected has fallen about 10 percentage points since the mid-2000s, while the number saying the same about “most members of Congress” has plummeted more than 30 points.

As I’ve said, this is nothing new in American politics. Although current attitudes about Congress are at all time lows according to all measures, it’s long been the case that Congress has been an institution held in disrepute by the public at large. One need look no further than the political humor of men like Mark Twain and Will Rogers to see evidence of that, and 19th Century politics is replete with biting, sarcastic, and cynical views of the nation’s Legislative Branch. Despite that, though, it’s typically been the case that a Congressman who gets past his first re-election campaign ends up getting re-elected as many times as he or she decides to run for re-election. Usually, when long-serving Members of Congress perceive there’s a chance they’d lose, usually through the decennial redistricting process throwing them in to a less favorable district, they end up retiring.

This phenomenon has been even more pronounced over the past 4o years or so, which has also happened to see the largest declines in public regard for Congress as a whole. As this chart from Open Secrets shows, even in years of profound change in the makeup of the House, more than 80% of incumbents running for re-election end up getting re-elected:

The numbers on the Senate side are slightly more variable, but nonetheless show that, for the most part, incumbents are more likely than not to be re-elected even in a volatile year:


There are several reasons for this phenomenon, of course, including the fact that so many House seats are now drawn in a manner to basically make them non-competitive for the opposing party (which is likely the biggest factor that the House re-election rates are so much higher, and more consistent, than those for the Senate), as well the general power of incumbency. What’s striking, though, is that even over the past three elections — 2006, 2008, and 2010 — as public respect for Congress has cratered into the single digits, re-election rates have barely suffered. The Democratic takeover in 2006 saw ~90% of House incumbents re-elected, and about 80% of Senate incumbents. In 2010, it was somewhere around 82% in the House and the Senate. Hardly revolutionary when you get right down to it.

This isn’t to say that the members of the 112th Congress have nothing to worry about next November. There are plenty of reasons to think that the Republican majority in the House is likely to shrink at least a little bit, although the benefits from redistricting make it unlikely that they GOP would actually lose control of that body. On the Senate side, a number of Democratic incumbents are vulnerable to the point where control of the upper house is definitely in play, although any Republican majority is likely to be rather slim and subject to the same kind of obstructionist tactics by a Democratic minority that we have seen from Republicans these past three years or so. But, for the most part, all of this is likely to take place on the margins. Most Congressmen and Senators will be re-elected, and Americans will go on hating them just as much as they always have. It sounds entirely irrational, and perhaps it is, but it’s apparently as American as Apple Pie

FILED UNDER: Congress, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tano says:

    Its not really irrational at all. Most Congressmen do a fairly adequate job of representing the interests of their district. That is why they get reelected.

    What Americans don’t like is having to compromise their interests with the interests of other people.

  2. Ernieyeball says:

    I do not know if you write your own headlines or not. And from reading the post I am not sure exactly how you mean “Schizophrenic”.

    From WikiP: Despite the etymology of the term from the Greek roots skhizein (σχίζειν, “to split”) and phrēn, phren- (φρήν, φρεν-; “mind”), schizophrenia does not imply a “split mind” and it is not the same as dissociative identity disorder—also known as “multiple personality disorder” or “split personality”—a condition with which it is often confused in public perception.

    The “Split Personality” diagnosis is not Schizophrenia though I often hear people use it that way. The less used but more accurate definition of Schizophrenia is that ones mind is “split apart from reality”. This could easily apply to large numbers of American electors.

  3. rodney dill says:

    …’cause your guys* are obviously screwing up.

    *non-gender specific use of guys

  4. James says:


    What Americans don’t like is having to compromise their interests with the interests of other people.


    I like your articles not so much for the actual stenography/chin-stroking you engage in; but rather for the actual amazing points of analysis your commentors make when snarking you.

  5. LX says:

    I know someone else already said it but you really shouldn’t say schizophrenia when you mean disociative identity disorder. It shows a poor understanding of the word, I am assuming you did not leave out some giant part of your article that included hallucinations and delusions being experiences by Americans. Please don’t misuse the word schizophrenic like that all you do is continue to promote common misconceptions.