How congressional dysfunction could hurt House Republicans

January 13, 2013

Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Sides looks at the evidence on whether public anger at Congress will come back to bite House Republicans. For past posts in the series, head here.

According to a Politico story this week, Democrats are hoping that the chaos evident during the fiscal cliff negotiations will come back and bite House Republicans in the 2014 midterm election. Are they right? 

Will a dysfunctional Congress hurt Boehner's members? (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Will a dysfunctional Congress hurt House Speaker John Boehner's (right)members? (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The evidence that Republicans will want to hear goes like this.  Sure, it's true that Americans don't like a lot about how government works. They think there's too much money in politics.  They don't like the bickering. These attitudes are detailed John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy. They write that Americans are "turned off by political debate and dealmaking that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests." In other words, when Congress is fighting, voters take that as evidence that they're failing.

However, it is far from clear how much concerns about legislative process really affect how Americans vote. Take the Affordable Care Act. The process that produced the ACA was long and drawn-out, with grubby compromises here and there -- like the infamous "Cornhusker Kickback." But opinions about the ACA didn't really change during much of this process, even among independents. In fact, the best predictor of public opinion was just partisanship: Democrats mostly supported health care reform and therefore either tolerated or didn't mind the process, and Republicans mostly opposed reform and decried the process.

When the 2010 midterm election rolled around, support for the ACA did cost some Democratic incumbents votes, according to research by several other political scientists and me. But this was about ideology, not process: supporting "Obamacare" made them seem more liberal -- too liberal -- to their constituents.

This lack of concern about process also emerges with regard to campaign finance. People bemoan money in politics. But does it influence how they vote? Consider than in 2008, about 70 percent of voters either did not know whether Barack Obama and John McCain had accepted public financing or were mistaken in their view. (It was Obama, of course, who did not accept public financing.) Small wonder, then, that when a related issue arose in 2012 -- whether Obama should support a super-PAC even after he publicly opposed the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United -- Rahm Emanuel said, "Voters don't give a [blank] about that stuff." If Emanuel's typically pungent observation applies to other aspects of the political process, then Republicans have little to fear from dysfunction.

But maybe they should be a bit afraid. Here's how a dysfunctional process might hurt them. First, although many things affect the public's approval of Congress, such as the state of the economy, conflict within Congress is one of them, according to research by Robert Gurr, John Gilmour, and Christina Wolbrecht. This research is particularly relevant now, since one of the indicators of conflict that Gurr and colleagues use is the frequency of votes to lift the debt ceiling. It won't be any surprise to know that more debt ceiling votes usually indicate that Congress is having trouble arriving at a longer-term compromise. Gurr and colleagues find that, as expected, a conflictual Congress is a less popular one. And right now, this Congress is definitely unpopular.

Now to step two. The particular problem for House Republicans is this: when Congress is unpopular, voters don't punish all House incumbents. Instead, they direct their dissatisfaction primarily at majority-party House incumbents. So argue political scientists David Jones and Monika McDermott in their book (see also this article). In the article, Jones finds that a 10-point decrease in approval costs majority-party House incumbents 4 points at the poll.  This effect is larger in swing districts and has been getting larger over time, as the parties have polarized. (We know less about how congressional approval might impact Senate elections, and whether it would hurt majority-party Senate Democrats.  Of course, congressional approval did not prevent Democratic gains in the Senate in 2012.)

Republicans seem to recognize the threat is real. In the Politico article, Alexander Burns writes, "GOP strategists privately acknowledge it would be a problem if the party somehow allowed itself to become synonymous with Washington dysfunction." After all, the Republican majority is not as large as it was before the 2012 election, and their party is already less popular than the Democrats.

Ultimately, there's no way to make a concrete forecast almost two years before the 2014 election. Events between now and then may overshadow dysfunction surrounding the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling. We also don't know how much dysfunction would matter, over and above the other factors like the economy and the popularity of Obama himself. And Republicans can take heart it what is known as "Fenno's paradox": Many voters hate Congress but love their own representative. It's one reason so many incumbents get reelected even when Congress is unpopular.

In short, what we don't know is, to paraphrase Emanuel, how many voters will give a...well, you know.

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