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The More Americans Know Congress, the Worse They Rate It

by Frank Newport, Lydia Saad and Michael Traugott

Story Highlights

  • Half of Americans say Congress doing a poor or bad job
  • Negative views rise to 66% among those highly knowledgeable about Congress
  • Political awareness is not related to ratings of government

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Americans hold the U.S. Congress in very low esteem, with 49% rating the way Congress is handling its job as poor or bad and 15% rating it as excellent or good. But ratings of Congress are even worse among those who know the most about America's legislative body. Among those who answer four or five questions correctly about how Congress works and who runs it, 66% rate Congress as poor or bad, and 7% rate it as excellent or good.

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These results are based on a new Gallup study on U.S. adults' attitudes toward Congress. Americans' low evaluations of Congress have been evident across many different measures in recent years, including the current 14% Congressional job approval rating and at or near all-time lows in confidence in the legislative branch of government.

Gallup set out to examine what is behind these negative attitudes: Do they arise out of a sense of displeasure rooted in weakly informed assumptions and impressions, or are they serious complaints resulting from paying close attention to Congress and what it is doing? The answer to that question is important because it can help guide efforts by those who care about the legitimacy of this important institution and want to repair its tattered image.

To that aim, Gallup asked Americans a set of five questions measuring their knowledge of specific facts about Congress, its operations and its leadership:

  1. Do you happen to know how many U.S. senators there are from each state?
  2. Would you happen to know which chamber of Congress -- the House of Representatives or the Senate -- is responsible for confirming federal judges?
  3. For how many years are members of the U.S. House of Representatives elected -- that is, how many years are there in one term of office?
  4. Do you happen to know which political party -- the Democratic or Republican -- currently has the most members in the U.S. House of Representatives?
  5. And do you happen to know the name of the majority leader in the U.S. Senate?

The results show that 17% of Americans are highly informed, answering four or five knowledge questions correctly. Another third correctly answered two or three questions, and about a quarter each could answer one or none correctly.

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Separately, 20% of Americans report they follow news about national politics very closely, similar to the percentage who correctly answered four or five knowledge questions about Congress. The two measures of political awareness are highly correlated, indicating that the five factual questions serve as an important indicator of both knowledge and political awareness.

The Knowledgeable Are the Most Negative About Congress

The relationship between Americans' knowledge of Congress' workings and their evaluation of the job it is doing is remarkably strong. Negative ratings of Congress are higher at each level of political knowledge. Only 29% of those who answer none of the five questions correctly think Congress is doing a poor or bad job. This rises to 46% among those answering one question correctly, to 56% among those answering two or three correctly and to 66% among those answering four or five questions correctly. In other words, the more Americans know about Congress, the more likely they are to say it is doing a poor or bad job.

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Further, the difference between the excellent/good and poor/bad ratings among those who know little factually about Congress -- those who do not answer any of the questions correctly -- is -2, a relatively neutral assessment. At the other extreme, the net positive rating among those who know a great deal -- those who answered four or five questions right -- is -59.

Thus, Americans who are the most negative about Congress are not making their judgment based on a vague sense of what is happening in Washington, but most likely basing their opinions on a well-informed view of the institution and its operations.

Implications

Evaluations of the job Congress is doing are currently much worse among Americans who know the most about its workings and who are paying the closest attention to who holds power in the institution. There might be many reasons for this, including the underlying relationships between knowledge of Congress and education and age. Highly educated Americans are much more knowledgeable than those with less education and are also much more likely to have negative opinions of Congress. Also, Americans aged 30 and older are somewhat more knowledgeable and more negative toward Congress than those who are younger. There is little significant difference between knowledge and partisanship, showing that this is not a situation driven by traditional politics.

But regardless of how it came to be, the fact that the most knowledgeable about Congress are the most critical has important implications for anyone focused on attempting to narrow the chasm that currently divides Americans and the people elected to represent them. It appears that Congress cannot merely talk its way out of its low ratings, but rather will need to actually perform better to win back public support among those who are paying the closest attention. This puts Congress' image in its members' control. The alternative -- if those members of the public who are neither knowledgeable nor paying attention reviewed the institution negatively -- would make the prescription for fixing the institution's image far less clear.

The second part of this report will explore the relationship between Americans' views of the U.S. Congress as a whole versus their views of how the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are performing.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 15-16, 2015, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Learn more about how the Gallup U.S. Daily works.

Appendix

The knowledge questions this report uses are part of a larger group of questions Gallup initially pretested as part of this research. Analysis of the pretest results show that a set of five questions provide a valid measure of knowledge of Congress, which allowed researchers to divide the population along a scale from highly knowledgeable to not knowledgeable at all.

The table below shows the percentage of Americans giving the correct responses to each of these questions in the research study.

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Americans are most likely to know which party controls the House, and least likely to know the name of the Senate majority leader (Mitch McConnell).

Overall, the table below lists the distribution of correct responses across the individuals interviewed.

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Half of Americans either answer none of the questions correctly or get only one correct (most often the party controlling the House). At the other end of the spectrum, only 17% of Americans answer four or five of the responses correctly.


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/185912/americans-know-congress-worse-rate.aspx
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