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