August 26 2014
Patrice J. Lee
Americans have a dismally low approval of Congress. Sadly, they are sick of policymakers in Washington. Contrary to what we might expect, that may translate into a strong voter turnout this November.
Only 13 percent of Americans actually approve of the job Congress is doing. That is actually four points higher than the all-time low of nine percent registered last November. It’s not just that congressional approval is hovering above zero, as Gallup finds, our confidence and trust in the nation’s legislative body as well as how ethically and honestly we view them has been eroded.
With no presidential race this year, we might expected Americans not to vote this November, but trends don’t necessarily support that expectation. Based on past election cycles, Gallup points to a strong inverse relationship between Congress’ approval rating and voter turnout in midterms. It finds that in the last five midterm elections, voter turnout has exceeded 40 percent (relatively high minus a presidential election) when Congress' approval rating was low, but turnout was below 40 percent when Americans were more approving. This is a recent phenomenon.
One caveat though: voter engagement will depend on not just wanting to change the course of public policy but on understanding who is best to deliver that change and what that change should look like.
The correlation between turnout and congressional approval since 1994 is -.83, indicating a strong relationship.
The disapproval-turnout link is a fairly recent phenomenon. From 1974 -- the first year Gallup measured congressional job approval -- until 1990, there was only a weak relationship between turnout and approval, with turnout higher when approval was higher, the opposite of the current pattern.
Since 1994, majority control of the House has changed hands three times in five midterm elections: after the 1994, 2006, and 2010 elections. Not coincidentally, congressional approval was low and turnout was high in those three elections, which suggests voters were motivated to change the direction of national policy, perhaps something that didn't seem likely to occur in midterm elections prior to 1994.
Since 1994, voters may have a greater belief that they can change the federal government and its policies by their choices of members of Congress in midterm elections. That belief in turn may help drive up turnout when voters feel a change is needed.
Voters likely feel a change in government is needed this year, given their historically low congressional approval ratings. Past patterns suggest this should lead to above-average turnout in the midterm elections this November. But there may be less consensus this year on what that change should be, given the divided control of Congress
The November elections will be a good test for this trend. Interestingly, Congress is currently split with the Hose and Senate led by competing parties. If one house flips to the other party (the Senate flipping from Democratic to Republican being the most likely scenario) it will embolden Republicans who would read into the win that Americans are tired of gridlock and ready for a conservative policy agenda. There is no guarantee though that that will happen. If supporters on both sides turnout in similar numbers thy may neutralize each other’s turnout and we’ll be left with the same congressional control (plus or minus a few different actors) and the same situation we see now.
If there’s one person who isn’t waiting to see the results of midterms to take action, it’s the President. As we discussed yesterday, he is ploughing ahead with his agenda through regulatory action. Over the past six years he learned that with a divided Congress, he can get nothing done and with a Republican-controlled Congress he won’t get any of his agenda advanced either. He may lose ground on some policy priorities and wins such as ObamaCare.
We’ll just have to wait and see how this all plays out.