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Who's Denny Hastert? Don't Ask Americans

Who's Denny Hastert? Don't Ask Americans

by Heather Mason Kiefer

If the president and vice president of the United States become incapacitated, who is next in line to become the leader of the free world? The answer: the speaker of the House of Representatives. Most American schoolchildren memorize that fact in civics class -- but even so, a large portion of Americans would not know the name of the man who is third in line for the presidency. According to a recent Gallup Poll*, more than 4 in 10 Americans (41%) have never heard of Dennis Hastert, who has been House speaker since 1999.

Gallup presented respondents with a list of high-ranking members of Congress and asked whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of each one, or if they have never heard of them. The big story is not the members' favorability ratings, but rather the fact that so many Americans would not venture an opinion either way.

Dennis Who?

Of all the members of Congress included in the poll, Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are least commonly known. A plurality of respondents (41%) had never heard of Hastert, and another 19% had no opinion of him. Twenty-eight percent gave Hastert a favorable rating, while 12% said they had an unfavorable opinion of him.

Pelosi, who was elected House Minority Leader in January 2003 and is the highest-ranking woman in the history of Congress, is just as unfamiliar to Americans as Hastert. Forty-two percent of Americans have never heard of her and 16% have no opinion. Roughly a quarter (23%) have a favorable opinion of Pelosi and 19% have an unfavorable opinion.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who has held that post since 2002 and served as majority whip for eight years before that, receives a bit more name recognition than Hastert and Pelosi do. A third of Americans (33%) have a favorable view of DeLay and 19% have an unfavorable view, while 34% haven't heard of him and 14% have no opinion.

Tom Daschle, who has been the Senate Democratic leader since 1995, and has received substantial media coverage in recent years for his outspoken criticism of President Bush, is more recognizable to Americans than Hastert, Pelosi, or DeLay. While just under a third (31%) of Americans have a favorable opinion of Daschle, just over a third (35%) have an unfavorable opinion of him. One in five Americans (20%) have never heard of him and another 14% have no opinion.

Most Americans Know Newt

Although he has been out of office for more than four years, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is still far more recognizable today than any of the current crop of congressional leaders. Gingrich made a name for himself in 1994, when he helped to orchestrate the first Republican takeover of Congress in 40 years with his famous "Contract With America." Gingrich resigned as speaker in 1998, shortly after the midterm elections in which the Republican Party barely held its majority control of Congress.

Gingrich, who now appears regularly as a political analyst on Fox News and other networks, clearly remains a polarizing figure: 39% of Americans have a favorable opinion and slightly more (42%) have an unfavorable opinion of him. Only 8% of Americans have not heard of Gingrich, and 11% have no opinion of him.

Bottom Line

Although Hastert, Pelosi, DeLay, and Daschle have each made their mark on congressional history, odds are none of them will ever be as controversial a figure as Gingrich was at the height of his power. So it's no big surprise that Gingrich's name is more likely to be recognized than the others.

Compared to Gingrich, Hastert keeps a low profile. Still, the fact that 60% of Americans have either never heard of the House speaker, or don't know enough to venture a positive or negative opinion of him, may strike many as an alarming comment on the lack of civic awareness among the American public.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 25-27, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.


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