Have Congressional Approval Ratings Lost Their Meaning?

The latest polling on the Colorado Senate race was released on Thursday from Quinnipiac University, and while the head-to-head matchups normally get the headlines, we've always looked more closely at approval ratings as a stronger barometer of election outcomes. The head-to-head matchups are fun to note, but they are often little more than snapshots of support for "generic opposition Party" versus the incumbent; something is obviously off when Republican Randy Baumgardner, who has raised as much money for his campaign as you have, appears to be within striking distance of incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

According to Quinnipiac, 45% of Colorado voters approve of the job Udall is doing in the Senate, while 41% disapprove. On a scale of 1-100, that doesn't look very good. But we can't really use that scale because the playing field for federal candidates is oddly skewed. With approval ratings for Congress in general at historic lows of around 10%, you could make the argument that a 45% approval rating is actually pretty good.

In a recent national Gallup poll, only 17% of registered voters (also a record low) say that most members of Congress deserve re-election:

[V]oters see their own U.S. representative in the same way that they see most other members of Congress — as not deserving re-election.

But here in Colorado, voters are split 42-42 on whether or not Sen. Udall deserves to be re-elected. The Gallup poll was asking about members of the House of Representatives, but the word "Congress" has traditionally been assigned to include both chambers in Washington D.C. Do voters think more highly in general of their U.S. Senators than their House members? Do more people assume the word "Congress" to apply only to the House, and not the Senate?

Whatever the dynamic at play here, the historic unpopularity of Congress has to be a major factor when you try to measure the approval ratings of a particular U.S. Senator — you can't currently take any numbers at face value without considering that inherent dislike of the entire legislative body. This shows up when you look at approval ratings around the country for incumbents facing re-election in 2014. Here's a sampling of the most current available numbers for a handful of Democratic incumbents running for re-election:

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK): 43-44
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL): 46-40
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA): 46-43

Could Udall's approval ratings be better? Sure…but how much better could they realistically get at a time when Congress is so disliked?

27 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. dwyer says:

    Dear ColoradoPols,

    All politics is local.  National polls are only significant in presidential elections.

    Republicans, in the form of tea party groups,  in Colorado have a strong presence.  I don't think that Democrats do.  Ken Buck has visited every one of Colorado's counties. 



    • OrangeFreeOrangeFree says:

      National polls are only significant in presidential elections.

      And even then they're not significant.

    • Tom says:

      I've visited every one of Colorado's counties. I don't know that I gained much insight along the way, but I'll remember to tout that if I ever run for office.

    • BlueCatBlueCat says:

      So how do you explain a Dem Governor, two Dem Senators, Dem majorities in both Houses of the state legislature several times in recent history and going for the Black Dem with the foreign sounding name for President twice if Dems have no significant Colorado presence? How do you explain various Tea Party favorites tanking in recent cycles if they are the only ones with a strong presence? WTF are you talking about? 

  2. Andrew Carnegie says:

    I think the polls are most useful by using same polls with same methodology over time to see trends.  I am also most interested in Independents.  Republicans will vote for Republicans and Dems will vote for Dems with them it is all about turnout, but what about the unaffiliated?

    Here is what I see of importance:

    Udall Approvals-Disapproval- net Buck

    Nov     44-38 +6  Total            29-26 +3

    Feb    45-41 +4    Total         25-24 +1

    Nov    39-41  -2     Independents  25-23 +2

    Feb   37-40  -3     Independents  28-19  +9

    The 14% gap with Independents in my view has something to do with Udallcare.



  3. BlueCatBlueCat says:

    Not to be taken as an analysis of the poll numbers but, as a matter of fact, I do think most people think of the House when they hear "congress" because of the term "conresman" and that's where those are. They may or may not have a somewhat different view of the Senate. Are there any polls that ask specificlly about Senate approval?

  4. gertie97 says:

    Polls at this stage of the game are next to meaningless.

    • dwyer says:


      you are absolutely right.  there is no reason for the democrats to be concerned….let alone pay attention to the polls or the voters, for that matter….

      • gertie97 says:

        No sleep again last night, dwyer? Tell you what. I think Udall will win re-election. Not because his ratings are on fire, but because the Republicans have a truly pathetic bunch running against him.

        The campaigns haven't really geared up yet, yet you're ready to throw in the towel based on early polls. Take a nap.


        • Gray in Mountains says:

          Udall is a masterful politician who doesn't tout his principles and thoughts often enough. He does defend what he votes for/against. He has been astute enough to use older pol tactics such as using the Q poll as a fundraising stimulus.

          Udall will win again

          So will Bennet, who is learning well.

          • BlueCatBlueCat says:

            Udall will do the heavy lift camapigning when it will do some good, when your average voter starts paying some attention. And you're right. He'll win. As will Hick who will also come through with a strong campaign when it counts.  

  5. Andrew Carnegie says:

    Colorado Pols latest brilliant insight:

    you could make the argument that a 45% approval rating is actually pretty good. – See more at: http://coloradopols.com/diary/54083/have-congressional-approval-ratings-lost-their-meaning#comments

    It is pretty good, if you are running against an incumbent with a 45% approval rating.  It is awful if you are the incumbent.  41% say he does not deserve reelection.  People who have not made up their mind, in this case about 14% generaly break against the incumbent.

    Voting for Obama's favored policies 99% of the time does not give him a lot of daylight between himself and Obama who's approval ratings in Colorado are in the 30's.

  6. Ralphie says:

    Colorado Pols latest brilliant insight:

    Nobody is forcing you to come to this site.

  7. Gray in Mountains says:

    I wish there was a viable opponent for Tipton. It will take a lot of $ and the D committee tha pours $ into district lections (DRCC?) has decided to not targed CD3

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