People hate Congress. But most incumbents get re-elected. What gives?

In 2012, Congressional approval averaged 15 percent, the lowest in nearly four decades of Gallup polling. And yet, 90 percent of House Members and 91 percent of Senators who sought re-election won last November.

The seeming paradox between the low regard with which people hold Congress and the high rate of re-election of incumbents is explained well by new data released by Gallup on Thursday that points to a simple reality: People hate Congress but (generally) like their Member of Congress.

The U.S. Capitol. Washington Post photo.
The U.S. Capitol. Washington Post photo.

Gallup found that 46 percent of respondents said they approved of "the way the representative from your congressional district is handling his or her job" while 41 percent disapproved.  That's in spite of the fact that overall Congressional approval was at just 16 percent in the same survey and hasn't been higher than 24 percent since the start of 2011.

Even more fascinating, Gallup asked a different set of respondents if they could name their Congressman and his/her party and then followed up with a question on whether they approved of the person.

Roughly one in three people (35 percent) could name their Member of Congress -- that was surprisingly high, at least to us -- and, of that group, 62 percent approve of how their Member of Congress is going about their job while 32 percent disapprove. "Americans who say they can name their congressional representative skew older, more highly educated and somewhat Republican," writes Gallup's Elizabeth Mendes.

The numbers tell a fascinating story.

First, they make clear that it's far easier to hate an institution -- like, say, FIFA -- than an individual, particularly an individual you sort-of, kind-of think you know. There's a natural tendency to assume your guy or gal isn't like everyone else -- how could they be bad since you voted for them? -- and they are doing everything they can to make things better up there/down there/out there in Washington.

Second, it's clear that the voters paying the most attention -- as in those who can, you know, name who represents them -- are far more positive about their Members' service than the average person in the district.  Voters paying more attention are, of course, much more likely to vote and, therefore, the sample of people actually turning out on election day tends to be favorably inclined toward their Member. That, in turn, makes the incumbent's re-election much more likely.

Those two factors help explain why Congressional approval is at record lows but re-election rates remain near or above 90 percent. Bloomberg's Greg Giroux notes that in 2010 84 percent of Senators and 85 percent of House members won re-election. But that appears to be the exception not the rule with 95 percent (or more) of House members typically winning re-election dating back four decades. (The last time -- aside from 2010 -- where less than 90 percent of House incumbents seeking re-election won was in 1974 when 89.6 percent did so.)

The message from voters to Congress? Throw the bums out. But not my bum.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · May 9, 2013