The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How many Americans even know who the speaker of the House is?

In January 2000, Gallup conducted its regular survey of Americans on political issues. Included among the questions in that poll was one asking whether people could identify the speaker of the House. At the time, it was Dennis Hastert, who had been in the position for more than a year.

Six percent of the people polled identified Hastert (R-Ill.) by name. Another six percent said someone else. A solid 88 percent didn't even try to guess.

For all of the justifiable attention paid to the resignation of the current speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio), and the decision by his heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), to pass on the gig, it's worth remembering that, for many people, this is not something to which they are paying close attention.

Since the very first speaker in the very first Congress, there has been one speaker who has gone on to become president — James K. Polk. Two, John Nance Garner and Schuyler Colfax, became vice president. And that's it, in terms of moving up the ladder. The position is less a launching pad than a landing point.

As time passed, Hastert became better known, as seen in the decreasing number of people who told Gallup and CNN/ORC, when prompted, that they had never heard of him. But even by the end of his tenure, a quarter of Americans had never heard his name.

His replacement, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), fared better — perhaps because Republicans gleefully tied other Democrats to the liberal San Francisco lawmaker. By the time the Democrats lost the House in 2010, only one in 10 admitted to having no idea who she was. For Boehner, the figure was at 15 percent in August — meaning that one out of every seven Americans had never heard his name.

And that's only the people who admitted it. Notice that asking someone to name the speaker is a very different question than asking them how they feel about the speaker. Asked to choose the correct speaker from a list of names in June 2007, 59 percent of Americans identified Pelosi in a Newsweek poll. In December 2008, 72 percent did so. But that's from a list! In June 2008, people were given the Hastert test, asked to name the speaker without a list of options. Thirty-nine percent said Pelosi. Fifty-eight percent couldn't name anyone.

The details of McCarthy's decision not to run for speaker are still being unearthed. But it's hard to see a whole lot of value in a gig that — even when your party isn't ripping itself in half — doesn't exactly make you a political superstar.