Fisking the Alienation Meme


Interpreting polling trends is not an easy thing to do. Understanding how they relate to the world of electoral politics is even more difficult. Some manage to offer important insights, and then we get…well… this. OK, it’s not the worst bit of political analysis I’ve ever seen, but it certainly isn’t good political analysis. I’ll explain why as we work through this…effort…at politial analysis from the National Journal’s Robert Brownstein.

In the shadow of the bitterly fought agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, the independent voters who usually hold the balance of power in American politics are expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress, and the Washington system itself.

This towering wave of alienation presages more volatility for a political system that has seen the public turn from Republicans in 2004 toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008, only to snap back toward the GOP with near-record force in 2010. Now, on several key measures, the public’s assessment of Congress is even more bleak than it was at this point in the last election cycle–even as Obama’s ratings have fallen to some of the lowest levels of his presidency, particularly among independents.

This intro paints a rather apocolyptic picture for partisans — the public (and especially independents) appear to be offering a collective “pox on both your houses” to the respective parties. Well, until you look at the actual data:

Public Approval of Congress

Wait a second…Congress’s approval has slipped from 20% to 18% since January 2011, a whole two percentage points (hint: that difference falls within the Gallup Poll margin of error) and we’re getting a story about a “towering wave” of alienation? Uh…OK. Even a 14% approval rating isn’t all that different from the norm, though certainly on the low end for congressional approval. But there are two even bigger problems:

  • Public approval for Congress is ALWAYS low. And commonly this low.
  • Congress is currently divided between the two parties, complicating partisan interpretations of approval.

  • As the Gallup article notes: “Americans’ opinions of Congress have not been very positive historically, with an average 34% approval rating since Gallup began tracking this measure in 1974.” What’s more, congressional approval has been on a steady decline since the 1970’s irrespective of factors like party control, the economy, and other exogenous events.

    Historical Trend of Congressional Approval

    Note, exempting the Black Swan event of 2001 and the subsequent temporary spike in approval ratings for everyone in the government, there is essentially an upper and lower bound to the approval of Congress…it ranges from about 40% to 20% give or take a few percentage points. But more importantly for this analysis, approval ratings for Congress have only spiked to the 40% ceiling twice since 2005, and for the most part congressional approval has settled around the floor of 20% during that period. What this tells us is that low Congressional approval ratings don’t mean much. They’re always low. And calling something a “historically low” approval rating when all it did was dip a few points is simply misleading. Yes, it is an “hisorical” low but it was already at a “historical” low and has been “historically” low for some time. Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along. What’s more, it is likely due to the fact of divided government. While voters tend to like divided government in the abstract, in practice they have little patience with gridlock. Furthermore, with both parties controlling one branch (and checking the other), it gives partisans from BOTH parties reason to disapprove of Congress…likely contributing to the ‘historically’ low approval rating. There’s little reason to let our collective imagination run away with us by suggesting we are headed towards some kind of ‘unprecedented’ political environment ripe for a major upheveal in our two party syst….

    With each party hemorrhaging public support amid political polarization and economic stagnation, the implications for 2012 are complex and unpredictable. American history lacks a true example of an election in which voters turned out large numbers of incumbents from both parties, but to some observers that no longer seems impossible amid the declining support for both Obama and congressional Republicans. And while no serious independent presidential candidate has yet emerged, the numbers show an unmistakable opening for a Ross Perot-style outsider candidate who mobilizes voters unhappy with both major parties.

    …oh well, never mind. I guess now is precisely the right time for just that. Oh, and by the way, Robert, Perot ran third to both major party candidates and didn’t win a single state’s electoral votes. The best result for an independent in 100 years, and not a single electoral vote. Anyway, let’s move on to the question of whether these “historically” low congressional approval ratings tell us much about the partisan electoral fortunes in the next election. If only we had a simillarly low congressional approval rating before an election to tell us…oh, wait…

    2007 Presidential & Congressional Approval

    As you can see, in 2008 and a few months prior to the election, Congress’s approval rating was at 19%, which was statistically indistinct from the current approval rating of 18%. And Bush’s approval rating makes Obama’s current approval look positively rosey. So…did we get some kind of third party wave in 2008 as independents lead a rush to some new Ross Perot-like figure and both parties experienced a public rejection by the electorate? Ummm…not exactly. Obama beat McCain by 6 points, and a whopping total of 1.4% of the electorate voted for all of the independent candidates running combined. And what about that congressional approval rating at a time when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress? Democrats picked up 8 seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House. Congressional approval ratings tell you very little about a party’s electoral fortunes in the next election.

    And they are even less relevant when we have divided government. What does it mean to “approve” of Congress, from a partisan perspective, when one party controls the Senate and the other party controls the House? Note, the approval of Republicans and Democrats in Congress has been relatively flat through 2011:

    Approval of Republicans and Democrats in Congress

    Note that approval for both of the parties in Congress is much higher than approval of the institution itself. This underscores precisely why we shouldn’t be treating approval of Congress, as an institution, or even congressional parties, as if they are the same thing as approval ratings for the president (a singular, individual national leader). It is comparing apples with footballs. Presidential approval ratings, unlike congressional approval ratings, do correlate with partisan outcomes in future elections. Unlike Congress, presidents do serve as the head of their national party and approval of a president correlates strongly with approval of that president’s party. Voters identify the president with his party in a way they do not do with Congress or even the parties within Congress. Poor presidential approval ratings are almost always a leading indicator for a poor electoral showing nationally for that president’s party whether it be in an off-year or presidential year election.

    Party Identification

    This measure of party identification in the American electorate by Gallup is much more indicative of the partisan fortunes of the parties in a forthcoming election. Party identification tells us the percentage of Americans in the country choosing to identify with the parties or to not identify with the parties. Note how the spike in Republican party ID and the decline in Democratic party ID presaged the Republican landslide in the 2010 congressional elections. What do those numbers look like in 2011? While we don’t have Gallup numbers for the full year (it only being August), Michael Barone’s analysis of recent Pew data indicates that the GOP’s 2010 advantage has held steady through 2011 with no signficant errosion apparent in the data.

    So, to wrap it up:

  • Congress’s approval rating, while “historically low,” has only slightly declined from January of this year and is wholly within the margin of error.
  • Congress’s approval rating is almost always low, and has been lower in recent years despite major partisan changes in control of Congress.
  • Congressional approval ratings, even when one party controls both branches, are not an indicator of partisan fortunes in a forthcoming election.
  • Party identification seems to have remained stable throughout 2011.
  • Presidential approval ratings are a very good indicator of that president’s electoral fortunes and his party’s electoral fortunes
  • Current polling does NOT suggest an opening for an independent-lead third party movement in 2012. Rather it indicates Democrats will likely suffer losses simillar to those suffered by Republicans in 2008.
  • Of course, much can change between now and then. But that’s what the data suggests at the moment. To Mr. Brownstein’s credit, he does go on to cite the political scientist Gary Jacobson, who points out that it is very unlikely to see a rejection of both parties and the rise of a successful independent party in 2012. However it is clear from Brownstein’s article that he credits the MacKinnon argument that the election will be ripe for an independent challenger. And that argument is bad. Sure, there will be independent candidates. And if you’re going to take the over or the under of 1.4% for independent candidates in the 2012 election, I’d take the under. So to answer the questions Brownstein poses in his article:

    These findings raise three intertwined questions for 2012. The first is whether this broad and corrosive discontent could encourage a third-party independent presidential candidacy.

    Not likely. There will be independent candidates. None of them are likely to gain traction. This will be, as usual, a competition between the incumbent party defending their record against the challenge to that record from the out party candidate.

    The second big question posed by this alienation is whether it could simultaneously threaten all incumbents, perhaps overturning the Republican majority in the House, the Democratic majority in the Senate, and Obama’s hold on the Oval Office.

    Absolutely not. This is patently ridiculous. You might as well ask whether the Grey Aliens from the planet Alpha Centuari are going to cause independents to give Ralph Nader the presidency. It’s that nonsensical. Brownstein has badly misinterpreted what congressional approval ratings tell us about elections. Answer: not much. Amazingly he quotes Gary Jacobson essentially telling him the same thing, and he quotes Jacobson pointing out the same thing I do (presidential approval is the indicator)…and he still poses this as a question as if it hasn’t already been defintatively answered. Uh, Robert, yeah. It has. Gary just did it for you. Pay! Attention! This is not a question to be answered. It is a question that has been answered.

    That whiplash pattern points to the third, and possibly most important, conclusion from the dismal polling numbers confronting all sides in Washington: the extent to which both parties have failed to secure enough support from independents to sustain a lasting advantage over the other.

    Now here he has a better point. I think it is certainly an open question whether or not we’ve left the generational realignments behind permanently or whether we are in a brief period of partisan equality before the realigment trends re-emerge. It’s a legitimate question. And Brownstein is right to note that political polarization may play a factor in preventing lasting realignments from restablishing themselves on a generational basis. But the congressional approval ratings are not a good measure with which to assess that question or any electoral question. The numbers indicate that 2012 is likely to be a bad year for Democrats, all things being equal at the moment. And this talk of “alienation” is simply a waste of time and bad political analysis.

    Oh, snap! D.GOOCH

    Date: Friday, 5. August 2011 13:32
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      […] parties over the last three decades with no one party gaining a sustainable foothold. As I noted in my post on the alienation meme, one good point in that article was the assertion that ‘sustainable’ control of […]

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