Matt Drudge blew the ram’s horn early Tuesday morning: “Congressional Approval Rating Falls to Single Digits for First Time Ever.” Within minutes, the conservative group Freedom’s Watch was blasting the news out to reporters. And by afternoon, Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida — the No. 3 Republican in the House — had welded it into a cudgel with which to beat the Democrats.
“A new national survey out today puts congressional approval in the single digits, at 9 percent,” Putnam told reporters gathered for a pen-and-paper session. “At the rate we are going now, gas prices and congressional approval should cross paths any day now.”
The only catch: The news wasn’t exactly the news.
Congressional approval ratings are low and getting lower, but the Rasmussen Reports poll numbers that had Drudge breaking, Freedom’s Watch blasting and Putnam bludgeoning Tuesday weren’t really congressional approval ratings, even if Rasmussen’s own headline described them as such.
Rasmussen didn’t ask respondents whether they approved or disapproved of Congress; it asked respondents to rank Congress’ job performance as excellent, good, fair or poor.
Just 2 percent rated the performance as excellent, and 7 percent rated it as good.
Add those up, and you get 9 percent.
But 36 percent of Rasmussen’s respondents said they consider Congress’ job performance to be fair. Is that approval or disapproval?
Rasmussen CEO Scott Rasmussen said that’s a fair question but one without a clear answer. His best guess: If you converted the thinking behind the answers into the binary results of most polls — approval or disapproval — then Congress’ approval rating might actually be as high as the mid-20s.
That’s higher than the 13 percent approval rating Congress got in an “approve or disapprove” NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month. But it’s well below the 41 percent favorable rating Congress got last month when The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked whether voters had a favorable or unfavorable view of Congress.
Pew’s Michael Dimock said asking respondents — as Rasmussen did — to say whether Congress is doing an excellent job or a good job amounts to setting a higher bar.
“You have to actively think they are doing a good job, and not many people ever have that view of Congress,” Dimock said.
Of course, fewer people today seem to have that view than in years past. When Democrats took control of Congress in January 2007, 53 percent of Pew’s respondents said they had a favorable view of the institution. That share has since dropped by 12 percentage points.
However you gauge it, Rasmussen says it’s “impossible to overstate the general level of cynicism people feel about Congress and the functioning of government.”
Yes, but what does that mean?
Rasmussen is quick to note that polls such as his do not presuppose that respondents are paying close attention to the daily goings-on in the halls and hearing rooms of Capitol Hill. So maybe Congress is just a national metonym for “government” or “the world” or “the crappy way things are going these days.”
Rasmussen’s poll delved a bit into America’s anti-Congress sentiment. It found, for example, that likely voters think most members of Congress are more interested in furthering their own political careers (72 percent) than in helping other people (14 percent). It also found that 62 percent of likely voters think Congress hasn’t passed any legislation this year that will “significantly improve life in America.”
But Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann wonders how they would know.
“The reality is, most Americans don’t have a clue of what is actually being done or not eing done by Congress,” Mann said. “They are sort of grasping at bits of information that they come on that is general statements of general productivity.”
Mann said that most Americans have failed to internalize the Madisonian Model, let alone its dilatory and argumentative nature.
“The other problem,” Mann said, “is that most of the reporting on Congress, most of the stories people hear, are failures or examples of scandal or corruption, of filibusters or failure to act on legislation or campaign fundraising conflicts.”
Dimock agreed: “Since most people don’t think in a very concentrated way of specific activities of Congress, a lot of their reactions to a question like that is, ‘Things kind of suck, so they’re not doing a very good job.’”
But who is “they”? A survey respondent who disapproves of Congress might feel that way because of the agenda the Democrats are pursuing. Or the respondent might disapprove because the Republicans are standing in the way of that agenda.
Putnam said Tuesday that poll results such as Rasmussen’s show both parties that 2008 is shaping up to be “a strenuously anti-incumbent cycle” — but that the Democrats have the most cause for worry because they have more seats to lose.
“I would argue that all incumbents are facing head winds that they have never seen before,” Putnam said. “And the arithmetic of that is that it will disproportionately affect the party with the most seats. Add to that the fuel — forgive the pun — that is this energy dynamic in Congress. ... Frustration over lack of solutions over high gas prices is certainly a driver in the low congressional approval rating. And the Democrats’ failure to act time after time ... on any aspect of solving this problem, I think, puts them in grave danger.”
The counterpoint: In last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 52 percent of the respondents said they would like to see Congress controlled by the Democrats next year, while just 33 percent said they wanted to see the Republicans back in charge.
Does that mean that the approve-disapprove, favorable-unfavorable, excellent-good-fair-poor polling is wrong? No, said Gallup Poll Editor in Chief Frank Newport. It just means those polls — taken alone — aren’t all that useful as crystal balls.
“We feel one of the major purposes of polling is to provide Americans ongoing views of their government, which is different than projecting election probabilities,” Newport said. “This captures the underlying faith and attitudes people have in Congress and their president. Do they predict revolution? No, but they are important indicators taken with other indicators.”
Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this story.