Low Approval of Congress Points to High Seat Change in Nov.

by Jeffrey M. Jones

President's party on average loses 29 seats when Congress approval is below 40%

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans continue to give Congress low approval ratings this year, with 20% approving in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll. Recent ratings of Congress are only slightly improved from the near-record low obtained in March.

2010 Trend: Do You Approve or Disapprove of the Way Congress Is Handling Its Job?

From a historical perspective, Americans' job approval ratings of Congress in 2010 rank among the lowest Gallup has measured in a midterm election year. The 16% recorded in March is the lowest single reading in a midterm election year, just above the low from all years of 14% in July 2008.

This year's low approval ratings for Congress are a potentially ominous sign for President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress. Gallup has found greater party seat change in Congress in midterm elections when Congress has had low approval ratings.

Specifically, in the five midterm elections in which Congress' approval ratings at the time of the election were below 40%, there was an average net change in seats of 29 from the president's party to the opposition. That includes the 1994 and 2006 elections, when the net change in seats was large enough to pass control of the U.S. House from one party to the other.

There has been far less party seat change when Congress' approval ratings exceeded 40%. This has been the case in only three midterm elections (1986, 1998, and 2002); Americans typically do not rate Congress all that positively. In each of these elections, the net seat change by party was five or six seats.

Congressional Approval Ratings and President's Party Seat Changes, Recent Midterm Elections

There is little in the historical record to suggest that Congress' approval rating could reach the 40% level this year. In 1990, 1994, and 2006, Congress' approval ratings began the year under 30% and stayed below that mark for the entirety of those election years. Only in 1974 did Congress' approval rating start low and show significant improvement. Richard Nixon's resignation as president due to the Watergate scandal sparked a brief rally in support for government leaders, which moved Congress' approval score from 30% in April to 47% in August. However, by the time of the 1974 elections, Congress' approval rating had fallen back to 35%. (Gallup asked about Congress approval only once each in 1978 and 1982.)

In 1998 and 2002, two years in which Congress' approval ratings were above 40%, its ratings started the year above 40% and never fell below that mark. (Gallup asked about Congress approval only once in 1986.)

Bottom Line

Low congressional approval ratings are usually associated with greater party turnover in House seats in a midterm election, and this year's job approval scores for Congress rank among the lowest Gallup has measured in a midterm election year.

Nevertheless, Gallup has found that presidential approval ratings seem to be more predictive of midterm election outcomes than congressional approval is, when the two are at odds. That was the case in 1990, for example, when 26% approved of Congress but 58% approved of President George H.W. Bush, and only eight seats changed party hands. This year, however, President Obama's approval ratings have mostly been tracking below 50%, and, unlike 1990, both Congress and the presidency are now controlled by the same party. Together, these findings suggest that under the current environment, Democrats could expect to lose a significant number of U.S. House seats on Election Day.

Explore more Gallup data relating to the upcoming congressional midterm elections, including Gallup's complete generic ballot trend since 1950 in our Election 2010 key indicators interactive.

Survey Methods

Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 11-13, 2010, with a random sample of 1,014 adults, 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 http://www.gallup.com/.

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