Approval Ratings of Congress, Parties and The President: Apples and Oranges

How often in your life have you heard a political commentator say something like “Well 50% of Americans may disapprove of the job the President is doing, but he is still better off than Members of Congress, of whom 70% of Americans disapprove”?

Countless op-eds, essays and news stories travel the same lines. Typically, they try to forecast elections by analyzing presidential approval ratings and Congressional approval ratings (or approval ratings of one of the parties).

But approval ratings of groups of politicians can’t be interpreted in the same fashion as approval ratings of individual politicians, particularly if we are trying to guess what will happen in an election. At least three flies trod the ointment:

(1) Everyone who responds to a poll about Presidential approval is expressing an opinion about the same person. But poll respondents who express approval or disapproval of a large group of people (e.g., Congress or the Democratic Party) could be giving an opinion about different individuals or subgroups within that greater whole. Their opinions therefore can’t be reasonably aggregated as if they had the same meaning. For example, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid-loving respondents’ disapproval of “Congress” may refer to how they loathe the Tea Party Caucus whereas Tea Party respondents’ disapproval may reflect how they detest Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

(2) Ever wonder why pre-election polls often show that voters are overwhelmingly hostile to incumbents yet the results of the ensuing elections indicate that those same voters went out and supported an incumbent? Human beings have a self-serving cognitive bias when they make personally relevant judgments. If you ask a smoker “What proportion of people who smoke just like you will get lung cancer?”, and then ask “What is your own chance of getting lung cancer?” the smoker will usually explain why, for some reason or other, their personal risk is lower than what they quoted for the group of people who smoke just like them. The same phenomenon can be at play when someone tells you that 90% of the Congress are bums who should be thrown out of office, but also maintains that “Good Old Representative Smith” in their own district happens to be in the 10% of paragons on the Hill. You can’t play this self-serving cognitive game with yourself when a pollster asks you about whether you approve of the President because we all have the same President. If you think my President is a bum, by definition you think yours is too.

(3) Everyone can vote for the President, but no one gets to vote for more than a small slice of “the Congress” or one of the major parties. If you disapprove of the President, you have the power to act on the object of your disapproval when you vote. But even if you loathe most of the Congress and/or one party, you don’t have much power to translate those attitudes into action in your voting. That’s another reason why Presidential approval ratings can’t be interpreted in the same frame as generic party or Congressional approval ratings

How can you compare apples and apples when forecasting elections? Analyze data from those polls that follow questions about approval of the President with queries about approval of the Congressional Representative for the respondent’s own district and each of the individual Senators from the respondent’s home state.

Comments

  1. Dennis says

    Keith,

    There is also a cognitive bias causing people to think Congress is a parliament of whores, but their particular whore is the one with a heart of gold.

  2. ShadowFox says

    One more point that you might have ignored or overlooked is the fact that there is a tertiary approval of the president that is possible–that is, the president may be “not enough X” rather than “too much X”, which is the way these polls are traditionally interpreted. The same applies to the “direction in which the country is going”–you can have 40% believing that the shift is too far to the right and 40% believing the shift is too far to the left, but the net result will be an 80% disapproval. If you ask the right question, the answer will be 60-40 split, not matter which choices you offer–either positive or negative, depending which party is in charge. But, with Congress or the parties, the approval choice is purely dual. Whether you approve or disapprove of one of the party’s agenda, you can still believe that Congress is functioning or it is not functioning. Either way, you have a stark choice.

  3. TreeBeard says

    While I agree to what you’ve said, you miss one point:

    “Everyone who responds to a poll about Presidential approval is expressing an opinion about the same person. But poll respondents who express approval or disapproval of a large group of people (e.g., Congress or the Democratic Party) could be giving an opinion about different individuals or subgroups within that greater whole. Their opinions therefore can’t be reasonably aggregated as if they had the same meaning.”

    Couldn’t criticism or disapproval of the president come from the (relative) extreme of *his* side? There are enough of left-of-centre democrats, liberals and progressives who are disappointed with President Obama’s performance. That might, in times of crisis at least, balance out the fact that Congress gets the stick from both ends?

  4. Keith Humphreys says

    TreeBeard: You are certainly right that within a group of poll respondents who disapprove of a President there could be people who are to the left, right and center of him, and some of them consider him too far right while others consider him too far left. This is not however a threat to aggregating those opinions in predicting election results, because a vote against a President is equal to all other such votes irrespective of the motive behind it.

  5. ShadowFox says

    Keith, that is absolutely not true! People who think that the President is on their side, but not far enough, may very well–in fact, likely will–vote for the President. This in no way tempers their criticism, but it might temper their enthusiasm.

    It’s interesting that TreeBeard and I essentially brought up the opposite sides of the same coin. My point was that people look at Congress as an failed institution, not at a group which is failing in parts. I am sure you’re right, to a degree–some people do think that Congress would’ve been just fine if it only kept the riff-raff out. But people who believe that are in the minority–the majority of the critics believe that Congress is ineffective and has a retarding influence on the nation. And they may still like their own reps just fine–or, those who voted for him might, in any case.

  6. James Wimberley says

    If you ask Americans what they think of the Constitution, they say it’s marvellous. If you ask them how the institutions created by that constitution are working – the Presidency, Congress, the federal judiciary and Supreme Court – they are dissatisfied. There’s a deep reluctance to join up the dots. It’s strange how very little discussion there is outside academe about reforming the constitution. The Balanced Budget Amendment is mere theatre: a doomed attempt to legislate a crackpot economic policy by the infeasible constitutional route. France had a cohabitation problem generated by different timetables of presidential and parliamentary elections; they fixed it. America’s more serious cohabitation problem is treated as an Act of God.

  7. Keith Humphreys says

    ShadowFox: “Keith, that is absolutely not true! People who think that the President is on their side, but not far enough, may very well–in fact, likely will–vote for the President. This in no way tempers their criticism, but it might temper their enthusiasm.”

    That’s an extremely strong claim that you will have to back up with evidence before I will believe it. If you are right, even 60% disapproval of a President would be no big deal — it would only take slightly less than 1/5 of the disapprovers to be the sort you describe for the President to be re-elected (i.e., 60%-12% = only 48% vote against the President). I am not sure there are any examples of a President hitting election day with a 60% disapproval rating and being re-elected, but correct me if I am wrong about that I am not an expert on the history of polling.

  8. Brett Bellmore says

    “If you ask Americans what they think of the Constitution, they say it’s marvellous. If you ask them how the institutions created by that constitution are working – the Presidency, Congress, the federal judiciary and Supreme Court – they are dissatisfied.”

    And many will point to said institutions not following said constitution as a good deal of the problem. Though for my part I don’t think the Constitution is “marvelous”, just better than not really having a constitution, which is where we find ourselves right now.

  9. CharleyCarp says

    There’s nothing wrong with looking at general approval levels, but if you want to talk about elections, you have to take geography into account. It doesn’t matter, for election purposes, if the President’s unfavorable rating in Texas is 65 or 82, or if his favorable rating in New York in 55 or 70. Polarization is pretty important.

    It’s especially important to members of Congress, obviously.

    No one is paying attention to constitution reform fantastists for the same reason no one is giving serious attention to the death-wish fantasists of the Left Wing primary challenge to Pres. Obama: not going to happen. (I say death-wish because everyone but the fantasists themselves understands what follows the crushing defeat that the challenger would experience in the primaries. This also explains lack of interest among actual candidates.)

    The fellow who represents me in the House is said to be the dumbest member of Congress. No one blames the Constitution, Barack Obama, or even Ralph Nader. He wants to move to the Senate in 2012. Will we send him? We just might.

  10. CDW says

    The more voters dislike their government, the more they will vote for anti-government Republicans. Republicans are probably thrilled about the low approval ratings. The lower the better is fine with them. It makes sense in a pathological anti-democracy way.