In the wake of the Mark Foley congressional page scandal, Congress' already dismal job performance ratings are at their lowest point during an election season in more than a decade — just 29 percent in the most recent poll. But what effect, if any, will low congressional approval ratings have on Election Day?
Democrats fervently hope that voters will take out their frustration with Congress on candidates from the majority party. Republicans hope that Americans' disapproval of Congress will not lead to any significant losses.
With Republicans clinging to only a slim margin in the House of Representatives — a change of only 15 House seats out of 435 would tip the balance to the Democrats — disapproval of Congress could prove pivotal in determining which party controls the next House.
Despite its potential importance, very little is commonly understood about the role played by public evaluations of Congress. Nevertheless, history does contain a few significant clues for what we might expect on November 7.
Since 1980, four Congresses clearly stand out as the most unpopular — all averaging below 34 percent approval in the months preceding the election — 1980, 1982, 1992, and 1994. At first glance, these elections don't appear to offer a clear verdict on whether the majority party should worry about public disapproval of Congress. On one hand, despite intense congressional unpopularity, the majority party lost only a small number of House seats in 1992 (eight), and actually gained 28 House seats in 1982. If the 2006 elections are like either of these, Republicans can be confident that they will retain power in the House.
On the other hand, congressional unpopularity also coincided with the two biggest electoral disasters for the majority party in the last 30 years — the elections of 1980 and 1994. In 1980, the Democratic majority lost 30 seats in the House; in 1994, the Democrats lost 52 seats and majority control. If the 2006 elections are like either of these two, Republicans should prepare for life as the minority party once again.
This begs the question: Which of these types of elections is the model for 2006? It turns out that the biggest difference between status quo elections and minority party landslide elections is the difference between unified versus divided party control of government. Both of the "landslide" elections occurred when both the presidency and the Congress were controlled by one party, while both of the "status quo" elections occurred when the House was controlled by a different party than the presidency.
The effect of unified and divided government revolves around a party's ability to deflect blame. When the president is from a different party than the majority in the House, as in 1982 and 1992, the House majority can mitigate the damage done to their party by blaming the opposition party in the White House. This is precisely what enabled the Democratic majority to gain seats in 1982, at a time when Ronald Reagan was saddled with low approval ratings as well.
But when the majority party in Congress also controls the White House, the buck stops at that party's door. Americans' negative view of the majority party's handling of Congress is reinforced to the extent that they also hold a negative view of that same party's handling of the presidency. In 1980 and 1994, Americans disapproved of Democrats' performance in both the White House and Congress — and Democratic congressional candidates suffered dearly as a result.
If there's a lesson to be drawn from these four elections, it is that the most dangerous electoral environment for a party is to control both branches of government and be viewed as performing poorly in each. With President Bush's own approval ratings at 34 percent in the most recent CBS/NYT poll, Republicans can only hope that history does not repeat itself.
David R. Jones is an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York, Baruch College. Monika L. McDermott is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.