Americans have long held mixed feelings about political leaders in Washington, but public perceptions of elected officials, Congress, and the political parties have turned sharply negative. In March, during the final debate over health care reform, just 26% of Americans offered a favorable assessment of Congress – by far the lowest in a quarter-century of Pew Research Center polling. And there was no improvement upon passage of the bill – just 25% offered a favorable assessment of Congress in early April, while 65% view Congress unfavorably.
When asked to describe the major problems with elected officials these days, there is no single criticism that dominates. Large majorities across partisan lines see elected officials as not careful with the government’s money, influenced by special interest money, overly concerned about their own careers, unwilling to compromise and out of touch with regular Americans. And the public sees the members of Congress themselves, not the system, as the root of the problem. More than half (52%) say the political system can work fine, it is the members of Congress that are the problem. Fewer (38%) are of the view that most members have good intentions but the political system is broken.
Increasing partisanship is a factor behind these assessments, and the public also has turned harshly critical of the political parties at unprecedented levels – with Democrats suffering the biggest declines over the past year. Favorability of the GOP dropped precipitously in late 2005, reaching 42% following Hurricane Katrina and, aside from brief spikes following the 2008 Republican convention and in February of this year, it has remained at roughly 40% since then.
As recently as January 2009, Democrats held a 22-point lead over Republicans in favorability (62% vs. 40%); today that advantage is gone, with just 38% offering a favorable assessment of the Democratic Party and 37% for the Republican Party. The extent to which the parties are seen as part of the problem today is perhaps best seen in the average rating for both, which never fell below 50% from 1992 through 2004, but has been in negative territory for most of the past six years. It reaches a new low of 38% in the latest poll.
While the overall image of the parties has never been lower, there has been a slight recovery in views of each party’s leaders in Congress, as each party’s base offered more praise in April than they did in March. Currently, 38% approve of the job Democratic leaders in Congress are doing, up from 31% a month ago – the share of Democrats offering a positive mark rose from 58% to 71%. Ratings for Republicans leaders rose slightly from 25% to 30% overall, driven by a shift from 49% in March to 60% currently among Republicans. There was no commensurate rise in party favorability ratings within each party’s base. Despite these slim gains, majorities continue to say they disapprove of the job each party’s leaders are doing in Congress.
Sliding Favorability for Congress
In January 2009, 40% of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of the then-new 111th Congress. That rose to 50% in April 2009. By last August, as the health care debate was heating up and many lawmakers faced angry town hall meetings with constituents, favorability dropped to 37%. It hovered near four-in-ten in early February (41%), but then dropped to 26% in mid-March as lawmakers maneuvered over the fate of health care reform legislation. And there has been no change with the passage of the health care reform legislation: in early April, favorability stands at 25%. Close to two-thirds (65%) say they have an unfavorable opinion of Congress; 30% of those say very unfavorable. These recent numbers are the most negative in the history of Pew Research Center surveys since July 1985.
Last April, 66% of Democrats had a favorable view of Congress; this April, that is down to 40%. Just more than half (52%) say they have an unfavorable opinion, with 19% saying their opinion is very unfavorable. Among Republicans, just 29% had a favorable opinion of Congress last April; that has fallen to 13% in the new survey. Close to eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) say they have an unfavorable opinion, including 42% who say their opinion is very unfavorable.
Close to half of independents (47%) had a favorable view of Congress in April 2009. That has now slipped to 23%. About two-thirds of independents (68%) say they have an unfavorable opinion of Congress, including 31% who say very unfavorable. Among Republican-leaning independents, 79% say they have an unfavorable opinion of Congress, while just 16% say they have a favorable opinion.
Favorability Down Sharply For Democrats, Already Low for Republicans
The 2008 election brought the nation a Democratic president in Barack Obama and larger Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. In January 2009, more than six-in-ten Americans (62%) said they had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, but that high level of positive opinion would not last. Today, 38% say they have a favorable view of the party, the lowest in nearly two decades of Pew Research Center polling.
Republicans, meanwhile, are roughly where they were at the start of last year. Today, 37% say they have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party; in January 2009, 40% said this. The difference between Democratic and Republican favorability has dropped from 22 points to one.
In the month before the 2008 election, Democrats had a 17-point advantage on favorability. In October 2006, just before the election that gave Democrats control of Congress, they held a 12-point edge. Interestingly, there was no difference in favorability in the summer before the 1994 election that saw Congress flip from Democratic to Republican control. That July, 62% said they had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, while 63% said they had a favorable view of the Republican Party.
That year, both parties were seen a largely favorable light. The average of the two together was 63%. For several years after that, one party’s higher rating would offset the other’s lower one, keeping the average above 50% – until July 2005. Near the end of the 2006 campaign, Republican favorability had slipped to 41% – from 51% in June 2004 – and the two-party average dropped to 47%.
The average then stayed around 50% through Obama’s election and the start of the current Congress. But the highly partisan debate over health care legislation over the past year seems to have taken a toll. In March, as lawmakers debated the final version of the health care legislation, the average favorability stood at 39%. This month, with that round in the fight now history, neither party has made any gains and the average stands at 38%.
Independents Less Favorable Toward Democrats
Since January 2009, the Democratic Party has seen the largest declines in favorability among independents, though it has lost ground among its own members and Republicans as well. Currently, 27% of independents say they have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, down from 58% in January 2009.
At the start of the Obama administration, 30% of Republicans said they had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party. That is now down to 10%. And among Democrats, favorability has dropped from 90% in January 2009 to 78%.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, started with relatively lower numbers that have changed only slightly. Close to four-in-ten independents (38%) said they had a favorable view of the party in January 2009; that is now 33%. About two-in-ten Democrats (22%) had a favorable view of the opposition party at the start of 2009. That is now down to 12%. And among Republicans, favorability of the GOP today stands at 79%, not significantly changed from 74% in early 2009.
Low Numbers for Congress and the Parties Heading into Midterms
The current favorability rating for Congress (25% favorable) is much lower than in mid-1994 (53%) or fall 2006 (41%), mid-term election years that resulted in a large turnover of seats – and changes in control – in Congress.
Not surprisingly, in all three cycles, ratings of Congress are highest among people who identify with the party in control: Republicans in 2006, and Democrats in 1994 and today. However, where roughly two-thirds of Democrats in 1994 (64%) and Republicans in 2006 (65%) offered a favorable assessment of Congresses controlled by their party’s leaders, just 40% of Democrats today have a positive view of a Congress controlled by their own party’s leaders.
Ratings of the political parties are also starkly lower today than in these previous critical midterms. Favorability for the Democrats today (38%) is lower than in either 1994 (62%) when they went on to lose their majority, or 2006 (53%) when they went on to win a majority. In July 1994, more than six-in-ten Americans (63%) had a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. That number stood at 41% going into the 2006 mid-terms and is at a similar point today (37%).
The erosion of party images is most severe among political independents. In 1994 most independents viewed the Democratic Party (60%) and the Republican Party (64%) in positive terms. In 2006 – the year Democrats took control of Congress – substantially more independents offered a favorable view of the Democratic Party (48%) than the GOP (35%). This year, independents have about the same view of both parties (33% favorable for the Republican Party, 27% for the Democratic Party).
But party images are even suffering within each party’s political base as well. In 1994, 94% of Republicans had a favorable view of their party, compared with 79% today. Among Democrats, 94% had a favorable view of their party in 1994, compared with 78% today.
More See Lawmakers as Problem than System
Asked if they think the political system is broken or if lawmakers are more to blame for today’s views of Congress, just more than half (52%) say “it’s the members of Congress that are the problem.” On the other hand, close to four-in-ten (38%) agree with the statement: “Most members of Congress have good intentions, it’s the political system that is broken.”
On balance, Republicans, Democrats and independents all tend to see the problem lying more with the members than the system, but Republicans are particularly of this view. By nearly two-to-one (60% vs. 34%) Republicans see the members of Congress themselves as the problem, not the system. The margin is in the same direction, but smaller among Democrats (50% vs. 42%) and independents (51% vs. 39%).
On this question, the responses of independents who lean toward either of the political parties are about the same: 53% of Republican-leaning and 51% of Democratic-leaning independents say it is the members of Congress that are the problem.
Common Criticisms of Elected Officials
When people are asked what they see – in their own words – as the biggest problem with elected officials in Washington, several common themes emerge. Almost two-in-ten (18%) say elected officials are influenced by special interest money, 14% say they care only about their political careers, 12% say they are out of touch with regular Americans and another 12% say they are not willing to work together and compromise.
Smaller percentages cite other concerns: 7% say they see elected officials in Washington as liars or dishonest, 5% point to the fight over health care, 4% each cite the economy, the notion that officials are all talk and little action or that the members of Congress themselves are the problem.
And when Americans are asked separately whether some of the more frequently voiced criticisms are major problems, there is little disagreement. Large majorities see as major problems a lack of care with the government’s money (83%), the influence of special interest money (82%) and the notion that elected officials “care only about their own political careers” (81%). Just under eight-in-ten say the same about officials’ unwillingness to compromise (78% a major problem) and the notion that elected officials are out of touch with regular people (76%).
Republicans are most likely to say that a lack of care with the government’s money represents a major problem (93%), but three quarters of Democrats (75%) agree, as do 85% of independents. There is little partisan difference in assessing the problem posed by the influence of special interest money: 86% of Republicans say this, along with 81% of Democrats and 82% of independents. And partisans on both sides see little effort to reach compromise: 80% of Republicans see this as a major problem, about the same as Democrats (82%) and independents (77%).
Republicans and independents are slightly more likely than Democrats to see the idea that elected officials are out of touch with regular people as a major problem: 81% of Republicans and 80% of independents say this, compared with 69% of Democrats.
Poor Ratings for Congress Higher Than in 2005
When Americans are asked to assess several specific aspects of congressional performance, the responses, not surprisingly, also are decidedly negative. Much higher percentages rate the performance as poor than did so in 2005, the last time this series of questions was asked.
For example, 60% say Congress has done a poor job of working across party lines; 24% say only fair and 10% say excellent or good. In 2005, when Republicans controlled both the Congress and the White House, 37% rated congressional performance on this question as poor, 28% said only fair and 18% said excellent or good.
Five years ago, 29% gave Congress a poor rating for acting ethically and honestly, 43% said only fair and 23% said excellent or good. Now, 50% give Congress a poor rating for this, 31% say only fair and just 13% say excellent or good.
There are large swings toward poor ratings since 2005 among Republicans and independents, in part reflecting the shift to Democratic control of Congress following the 2006 midterm elections. There is less change among Democrats, who were more negative than the other groups five years ago.
In 2005, 12% of Republicans gave Congress a poor rating for how it was dealing with issues important to the nation, compared with 36% of independents and 42% of Democrats. Today, 58% of Republicans give Congress a poor rating on this, compared with 31% of Democrats. More than half of independents (54%) agree, including 66% of Republican-leaning independents.
Currently, close to two-thirds of independents (64%) say Congress does a poor job “understanding the needs of people like yourself,” up 20 points from 44% in 2005. Just more than seven-in-ten Republican-leaning independents say this (72%). About six-in-ten Republicans (59%) agree, compared to 41% of Democrats. In the case of Republicans, the number is up 39 points from 2005 (20%). About half of Democrats gave Congress a poor rating on this measure in 2005 (49%), but that has not improved much with Democrats in control. Currently, 41% say Congress does a poor job of understanding the needs of people.
Most See Congress’ Impact as Negative
Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say that Congress is having a negative effect on the way things are going in this country today, an assessment comparable to the negative assessments for the federal government as a whole (65%), large corporations (64%) and banks and financial institutions (69%).
Among Republicans, 78% say Congress is having a negative effect on the country, while about half of Democrats (51%) agree. Close to seven-in-ten independents (68%) see Congress having a negative effect, but among independents who say they lean Republican that number jumps to 80%. Among those who say they lean Democratic, 57% say Congress has a negative effect on the country.
Young people are less likely than older age groups to say Congress is having a negative effect on the country. Half of those ages 18 to 29 say this, compared with 74% of those ages 50 to 64 and 68% of those 65 and older. About six-in-ten (59%) of those with a high school diploma or less education say Congress is having a negative effect, compared with 73% of those with a college degree or more education.