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No Sign of Improvement in Americans' -- and Republicans' -- Views of Congress

No Sign of Improvement in Americans' -- and Republicans' -- Views of Congress

The venerable General Social Survey results for 2014 confirm the findings from Gallup and other surveys that Americans have become significantly less confident in all branches of their government. This goes along with Gallup reports showing that Americans say dysfunctional government is the most important problem facing the United States.

As we would perhaps expect, given these dismal ratings, Americans' approval of the job being done by Congress is also low, at 18% for March. This is not the lowest in history; that honor goes to the 9% congressional job approval rating recorded in November 2013, after the federal government shutdown. But 18% is low by any standard, and this low level of approval has been consistent for years.

One interesting finding about approval of Congress at this juncture in history is the flat approval ratings we find among both Republicans and Democrats. In Gallup's March survey, only one percentage point separates the approval rating of Republicans/Republican leaners from that given by Democrats/Democratic leaners. The small group of Americans who are independents in the sense that they don't lean toward one party or the other give Congress both a lower approval and lower disapproval rating than others, mainly because almost one-quarter of this group are so detached from the system that they don't have an opinion about Congress at all.

Congress Approval, by Partisanship

Everything else being equal, a reasonable expectation would be that, by this point, Republicans' approval of Congress would have risen significantly. Their party took over control of the Senate in the November 2014 elections, which gave Republicans control of both bodies of Congress for the first time since 2006. Nine years ago, back in March 2006 for example, when Republicans also controlled both houses of Congress, there was a 31-point spread between the rating given to Congress by Republicans (43%) and Democrats (16%). Similarly, by way of contrast, six years ago when Democrats were in control of both the Senate and the House in March 2009 -- Democrats' approval of the job Congress was doing was at 55%, compared with 21% among Republicans.

Every situation is different, and the partisan ratings for Congress in the month of March of various years reflect the history that leads up to that point, including what's happening in the presidency at that time, the overall approval of Congress and other factors. Plus, it may be that rank-and-file Republicans' views of Congress will improve in the weeks and months ahead. But, at this point, there is no sign of "joy in Mudville" among Republicans when we ask them to rate Congress, even though they now control it.

Several issues are likely at play here. First, there are differences among subgroups of Republicans in congressional approval. Conservative Republicans tend to be more negative than are moderate/liberal Republicans. I combined February and March 2015 Gallup surveys to increase sample sizes, and found that 27% of moderate and liberal Republicans approved of the job Congress is doing, compared with 18% of conservative Republicans. This split isn't huge, but enough to suggest that Republicans' approval of Congress is, to some extent, being held back by the dissatisfaction of conservative Republicans -- most likely because they believe Congress is not being rigid enough in sticking to principle and refusing to compromise.

Second, it could be that the image of Congress has sunk so low in the eyes of Americans that it's moved beyond partisanship. In other words, even when a party controls Congress, the partisans of that party across the country have become so disillusioned that anything productive is going to be done that they can't bring themselves to say "approve," even when their party is in charge. Third, it may be that having a Democratic president in office so taints Republicans' views of the whole federal government apparatus that they assume Congress isn't going to be able to get anything done, regardless of who's in charge.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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