The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nancy Pelosi isn’t unusually unpopular — for a congressional leader

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is facing criticisms for the Democratic loss in Georgia’s special House election. (AP)

In the wake of Democrat Jon Ossoff’s loss in Georgia’s special House election this week, the well-exercised pointing fingers of Democratic politicians and voters got a workout once again. No one endured more flak than House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose face peppered ads opposing Ossoff’s candidacy, her name and home state providing a neat encapsulation of what Republicans wanted voters to worry about most.

In other words, Pelosi’s liberal politics and broad unpopularity were seen as a drag on Ossoff — and, perhaps, the definitive drag. The election-costing drag. But that unpopularity — while real — is not actually terribly abnormal for someone in Pelosi’s position.

Data from HuffPost Pollster shows every assessment of Pelosi’s popularity over time. Consistently, she’s been underwater on her favorability, which is to say that her negatives are bigger than her positives, so her net favorability is in minus territory.

Those lighter-colored dots mark another interesting metric: The percent of people who have no opinion of Pelosi, often because they aren’t familiar with her. It depends on the poll, but a quarter of the population consistently doesn’t know enough about the most powerful female politician in the country to have an opinion of her. C’est la vie.

For now, let’s cut out some of that noise. This is the average net favorability for Pelosi back to 2012 (when the Pollster data begins). It’s fairly consistent at a quick glance.

But let’s compare Pelosi’s polling to former House speaker John A. Boehner. Boehner, too, was consistently underwater, and consistently unknown by about a quarter of the country.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in the news a lot this week, is in a slightly different position. He’s also viewed more negatively than positively, but he also is less well known than the House leaders. This is, in part, a deliberate strategy on his part; he shies away from the fray more than Pelosi or Boehner. But it’s also simply a less visible position for a variety of reasons.

Happily, we have two recent additions to the pool of congressional leaders: the man who replaced Boehner and McConnell’s Democratic counterpart.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is the better example of how leadership can change things. During the 2012 election, serving as Mitt Romney’s running mate, he was viewed more positively than negatively. When he got back to the House, that dipped a bit.

Then, he became speaker — and the bottom fell out.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is unknown at McConnell levels, which is why his net favorability wasn’t that low. Since he won election to replace former Senate minority leader Harry M. Reid, the number of people who aren’t familiar with him has fallen — but so has his net favorability.

That cluster of dots can be hard to read. So let’s go back to that monthly average we used for Pelosi. When we do, the pattern becomes clear.

Pelosi, McConnell and Boehner all followed a similar arc — with the former two actually seeing some improvement over the course of the 2016 election. (That’s visible in the first Pelosi line chart, too, but I didn’t want to point it out until now.) Ryan and Schumer’s numbers, by contrast, have slipped. Ryan is now about as popular as Pelosi and McConnell.

The point here isn’t that Pelosi is popular. It’s that she’s not somehow weirdly unpopular — she’s just a congressional leader, and their higher profiles tends to mean that people have stronger, more negative opinions of them. She’s unpopular enough to be a weight around the neck of a Democrat in a close contest. But if she were replaced, the evidence at hand suggests that her replacement would soon play a similar role.