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Americans See Congress as Ineffective, Self-Serving, Entrenched

Americans See Congress as Ineffective, Self-Serving, Entrenched

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans who believe most members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected support their position by saying representatives are simply doing a bad job, that they have been in office too long, that they are not making decisions based on what's best for the country, or that they are too focused on self-interest, special interests, and partisanship. Relatively few cite Congress' performance on specific issues.

Please Tell Me Some of the Reasons Why You Believe Most Members of Congress Do Not Deserve to Be Re-Elected

More than 6 out of 10 Americans in Gallup polls conducted this year have consistently said "most members of Congress" do not deserve re-election. These are the highest numbers in Gallup's history of asking this question.

These data underscore this year's conventional wisdom that 2010 is a particularly bad time for congressional incumbents. Americans' approval of Congress in the same June 11-13 USA Today/Gallup poll is at 20%, at the low end of the historical range of that measure. Favorable ratings of both political parties are also near record lows. A recent Gallup poll also found that, by about a 2-to-1 ratio, Americans prefer a candidate who has never been in Congress to an incumbent.

There are a number of theories as to why Americans are so down on their elected representatives, but there is little empirical evidence that addresses the issue directly. In the June 11-13 poll, the 659 respondents who said most members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected were asked to explain in their own words why they felt that way. The responses were recorded verbatim and coded into categories.

Although there are some specific complaints about issues, the most prevalent explanations for why Americans think most members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected deal with broader concerns.

  • The most frequently given response, mentioned by 29%, is fairly straightforward and direct, if not a bit tautological: Members of Congress are doing a bad job or just are not doing their job, period.
  • The next-most prevalent responses focus on the perception that members of Congress are making decisions based on inappropriate or ineffective criteria (self-interest, partisanship, special interests), with the result that they are not working for all Americans and the interests of the entire country.
  • Fifteen percent of those who believe most members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected say it is because they have been there too long and that there is a need for new blood. This is not a new complaint. In 1996, for example, 74% of Americans were in favor of a constitutional amendment to limit the number of terms that members of Congress and the U.S. Senate could serve.
  • The final category of responses -- representing only a minority of all anti-incumbency explanations given -- contains a broad list of specific criticisms, including debt, economic issues, healthcare legislation, financial bailouts, wars, and immigration issues.

Partisan Differences

Differences between the two partisan groups are minor, with a few notable exceptions:

  • Republicans are more likely to say members of Congress do not act in the interests of the country as a whole and are not listening to the American people. Democrats are more likely to say that members are too partisan.
  • Republicans are slightly more likely to mention the federal debt and healthcare legislation.

Please Tell Me Some of the Reasons Why You Believe Most Members of Congress Do Not Deserve to Be Re-Elected, by Political Party

Bottom Line

Americans are not enamored with the job members of Congress are currently doing in representing the public's interests in Washington, D.C. A Gallup open-ended question probing the reasons for this helps explain why a majority say most members do not deserve to be re-elected. Americans' anti-incumbent sentiment focuses more on general, philosophical concerns rather than on specific issues. How incumbent representatives can alter these perceptions in time to stave off a major turnover in Congress in this fall's midterm election is a question whose answer is not immediately clear.

Survey Methods

Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 11-13, 2010, with a random sample of 659 national adults who say most members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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