2013 by the numbers: Polls add up to a tough year for Washington

There are lists for people of the year; the movies of the year, and so on. So how about a few “numbers of the year” from politics and our polls … Taken together, these tell a tough story for a lot of political players – Congress and President Obama, among them - and for views of the economy too, and all set the stage for a compelling 2014. 

14 percent

...Is Congress’ abysmal average approval rating for the year, through almost a dozen measures taken January through December. It’s a hair above its lowest-ever annual average of 13 percent set in 2012, and it didn’t move around a lot this year, climbing a little higher in late-summer and to 24 percent briefly in September, then dropping back down after the shutdown. It ends 2013 at 10 percent. Back in January, as this Congress was sworn in, it was 12 percent.

Considered over time, it’s in keeping with congressional approval’s downward movement in annual averages for the CBS News/CBS News New York Times polls since the early 2000s. Here are our average approvals for the polling each year (in this chart since 1990). Remember that historically congressional approval is never really high, but the line does tells a story about Americans’ views on the institution these days. Note that different years do see different amounts of polling and that timing varies within any given year, but you get the general idea.
cong app chart 2.JPG
Congressional Average Approval 1990-2013 CBS News
-15 points

…is the point difference between President Obama’s highest approval rating of 2013 (52 percent, in February) and his lowest (37 percent in November, also the lowest of his presidency, after the Obamacare rollout had taken its toll.) 

Most of the readings this year found it hovering in the mid-40s and it did rebound in the last poll of December to 42 percent, but that variation does tell a story, from the relative optimism that met his second inaugural (itself more measured compared to his first) and through the course of what turned out to be a battle-filled political year. 

It’s worth noting that while the president remained relatively more popular than Congress and congressional Republicans including during the shutdown, no one emerged from that unscathed.
obama approval chart - year end.JPG
37 percent

… is the percentage who currently say the economy is in good shape – which is a mere five points higher than said so at the start of the year. We saw a rise in the stock market and a decline in the unemployment rate, but Americans just weren’t ready to declare things good, as concerns about their own jobs and household finances remained, as well as apprehension about the overall direction of things: only a quarter in December thought the economy was at least improving, even if it hadn’t made it into the “good” category yet.

So leave aside, for a moment, the hot races and political battles in Washington (all of which we’ll get back to soon) when you think ahead and consider that this rating is probably the most important of all; the economy always sets the context. If it takes off, the Democrats would have something to run on that could potentially gloss over any lingering issues with Obamacare; if it doesn’t, that alone presents a big opening for Republicans… provided they can speak to how they’d fix it, if given control of the Senate to go along with the House. In either case you can bet on the number “1” – which is where Americans always rank the economy on their priorities list.

43 percent/42 percent

Okay, that’s two numbers. But in the wake of all the surveillance and phone records controversies this year, that’s a split illustrating some of the mixed feelings Americans have about the balance between protecting privacy and protecting people. In our November poll, 43 percent said the U.S. has generally gone too far infringing on peoples’ privacy in its anti-terrorism efforts, and 42 percent say it was striking the right balance between privacy and counter-terrorism efforts.

39 percent

…is the most recent approval rating of the Affordable Care Act, well under a majority, of course, and not much higher than the earliest reading we had for it this year in March, at 35 percent...50 percent disapprove.


In a nod to one of the few election events this off-year, this was one of the most compelling supplied directly by voters at the ballot box. One-third of New Jersey Democrats voted for Republican Chris Christie in his November re-election – and that’s an unusually high crossover rate. For comparison, partisan candidates these days typically draw less than one in ten such crossover votes. 

It’s important going forward because it was a number that fueled the speculation about a Christie presidential bid, and one that would probably give it an air or imprimatur of bipartisanship, which of course voters always say they want (though primary electorates aren’t always so moved). In either case, if you hear continuing chatter about Christie’s prospects, that 2013 number is one reason why.

And keep an eye on… 7

Tea party groups and some in the conservative base certainly intend to keep battling in 2014 with what they see as a GOP “establishment” that still compromises too much for their liking. Not entirely a lucky number for incumbent Republican senators, we’re keeping an eye on at least seven who look to face primary pushback (maybe eight depending on how serious the challenges get). Some may turn out to be formidable, others surely not and it’s too soon to tell, but worth watching because those primaries could have impact, even if just because the rhetoric in the Senate might, in the meantime, shows the pressure.  

(Side note: There are plenty of House members in this boat too. And we noted earlier this year that 144 GOP House members voted against the resolution that ended the shutdown, though most of them aren’t from competitive districts.) 

So that’s a few numbers and, admittedly, picking a few from so many can be subjective, much like any other standout lists of people, movies and so on (though for me this is easier than picking movies since I definitely saw more polls than films this year, which maybe means my New Year’s resolution ought to be to get out more, but that's another topic.) Then again there are always a few that, most everyone seems to agree, really do exemplify the year. 

Jennifer De Pinto contributed to this report