Things That Don’t Matter: Congressional Approval Polls

Real Clear Politics Polling Average, Morning of 6/7/2012

If there is anything in politics sillier than Congressional Job Approval polls, I’ve yet to find it – yet here I am writing about it.  Ostensibly, these polls are set up to gauge the public’s trust in Congress – to get an idea about the public mood regarding our elected leaders.

In reality, the entire setup of the poll is a sham.  Here’s the thing – unlike the President, the average voter cannot vote out the average Congressman (or woman).  The truth is, Congress is set up in the way that it is strictly to avoid the public’s mood from tearing the House and Senate apart.

A Brief History of Bicameralism in America’s Congress

There are two separate chambers in Congress of equal importance (I know, it sounds like the beginning of Law & Order), the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Those two chambers have very specific rules in place for legislation and for elections, to fulfill a very important role in America – to debate both the long and short term effects of a bill, along with regional effects.

  • House of Representatives – A 2 year election cycle for every member increases the chance the makeup of the House will change based on mood.  States are divided by population in order to bring equal representation to every Geographic area – so (for example) two Representatives from the same party in the same state might vote in different direction if one represents the rural part of a state versus an urban area.  As it says in Federalist Number 52, “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”  That passage describes the House perfectly.
  • Senate – The senate has the longer term outlook of the two chambers.  It is built for (small ‘c’) conservatism, with rules like the filibuster which ensure only broad consensus leads to laws being passed.  Elections are held every 6 years, so a Senator is trusted to be more independent than a Representative and to approach bills with a long-term frame of mind befitting their longer tenure.  There are two Senators in every state, and they represent the whole state, not individual Geographies.  From The Federalist Number 62, “Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the States.”  So, there you have it.  A coalition of high population states can’t force legislation on the others because of the built in checks and balances.  (And a majority of states can’t do something similar).


Most pertinent to our discussion is the concept of regionalism.  Think about it – if you live in Rhode Island, you vote for 1 of the 2 Representatives in that state, and for both Senators.  Your vote has no sway over Senators and Representatives in Texas.  Texas is a much larger state than Rhode Island; Texas has 36 Congressional Districts (California has 53).

And why should it?  People in Texas and California face a vastly different situation than people in Rhode Island.  We ask voters from every state to come together to choose a President of the United States, as a President’s decisions affect everyone who lives in this county, but when it comes to legislation, the normal state of affairs should be to tend towards (small-c) conservatism since so many coalitions are in play.  This is the concept behind checks and balances… for a law to become a law, it generally requires a buy in from a majority of the People (in the form of Representatives), States (in the form of Senators), and Country (in the form of the President).  Because of the conservatism inherent in the system society can operate under predictable rules – it should be hard for laws to change, and uncertainty should be minimized.  In fact, times when Congress is most divided are the best times to invest, historically.

The Futility of Congressional Polling

Hopefully you’ve read between the lines by now.  At some level, I’m saying that hatred of Congress is a good thing (although I’m certainly not saying always – Congress does occasionally need to find consensus).  Mostly, I’m saying that polling the entire country on what is a state (or even region) only decision is pretty pointless, other than as a dumb headline to write articles about (Recursion?  Self-Reference?).  Stick to better measures of the vulnerability of Congress such as the Generic Congressional ballot (which measures what party people will vote for in their own elections, most useful for House) or even Presidential polls li.  A new entry into the prediction game is political betting markets (link is to the Senate) on Intrade.  Of course, Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight writes great articles as well, including projections on Congressional elections as we get closer to November.  Keep an eye on Larry Sabato and Sean Trende as well.

Well, hope that helps with the 2012 poll watching as we approach the Big Dance – it’s just another poll you can ignore…  DQYDJ – (slightly) improving the signal to noise ratio in Politics since 2009!

Do you agree with me?  What are your favorite polls?  What state has your least favorite Congressional Delegation?


  1. JT says

    I think it’s pretty well established through these polls and election results that people do not like Congress, but like their congressman. It’s interesting how that works.

    Mostly it seems that people support Congress most when it does things they support. Especially big noticeable things like the Stimulus in your chart, and if you look further back, war with Iraq/Afghanistan. 

    • says

      So it’s really measuring how much you hate other Representatives and Senators – which is bound to get a strong reaction, I might add.

      They should ask me: I like gridlock!

  2. says

    If you ask me. I’d suspect that gerrymandering has the most to do with this particular political phenomenon. You guarantee that most districts will be far left of far right on the political spectrum. So naturally, they like the partisan that represents them, but not the more moderate laws that must result from our elected legislature that has a wide array of differing views.

    • Hope to Prosper says

      Gerrymandering is one important factor.  Another is the overwhelming advantage imcumbents have in fund raising.  Special interests love incumbents and the longer they stay in office, the more powerful they become.  Challengers have an uphill battle and are usually vastly outspent by the incumbent during a campaign.

      The good news is that career politicians are finally starting to get voted out by people and organizations that are paying attention to their voting records.  We got rid of Arlen Spector in the last election and Dick Lugar in this one. If we can accellerate that process, Congress may start to pay more attention to their popularity ratings and their constituants.

      • says

        Gerrymandering is definitely a huge deal. The ‘victors’ (meaning the party in charge after a census) are tasked with redrawing boundaries for representatives after a census, and as a result (over tens of cycles), only a few house seats are truly competitive. When we talk about ‘wave elections’, we usually mean a 40+ party shift, which usually requires about 5-10 extra seats to flop… so a wave election is when 10% of the body flips over. Makes sense… haha.

    • says

      And if you’re gerrymandered, you can choose to enact or push extreme policies that people living just a mile from your district may loathe. Them’s the breaks!