Congress, Elections

Partisan conflict and Congressional approval ratings

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Last updated: September 21, 2011

US Capitol (Wikimedia)
US Capitol (Wikimedia)

The public approval rating of Congress dropped to 12% in September 2011, fueled in part by bitter partisan debates on national healthcare, the debt ceiling and tax reform.

A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Political Science“The Dynamics of Partisan Conflict on Congressional Approval,” notes that scholars in this field have previously found that citizens “do not always look at parties as a kindred spirit, representing their interests, but instead view political parties as unresponsive to the public.” Researchers have also found that “a large number of Americans perceive members of Congress as excessively loyal to their political party.”

The 2009 American Journal of Political Science study attempts to look at this dynamic more precisely; it utilizes quarterly data between 1974 to 2000 to assess the consequences of party conflict on Congressional approval ratings.

Key study findings include:

  • Dissatisfaction with Congress correlates positively with sustained incidences of partisan bickering and is slow to return to a neutral state.
  • The overall approval rate declines each subsequent quarter slowly and even after a year does not necessarily return back to a neutral state. This slow return to equilibrium suggests that “current evaluations of Congress are dependent on past evaluations of Congress,” and based more on past impressions rather than current events.
  • Media coverage of partisan conflicts is linked to Congressional approval levels; for example, a significant increase in the number of New York Times articles about Congress is correlated to changes in approval and is followed by another significant change in the subsequent quarter.

The author concludes that “the findings here support the notion that the public views political parties as a means to dilute the independence of otherwise good-willed legislators and respond to partisan behavior by reducing their support for the legislative branch. Thus, the public may not want ‘responsible’ political parties and instead desire, at least in appearance, more bipartisan cooperation and policymaking.”

Tags: campaign issue


Writer: | September 21, 2011

Analysis assignments

Read the American Journal of Political Science paper "The Dynamics of Partisan Conflict on Congressional Approval."

  1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
  2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
  3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

Read the CBS News article "Poll: Just 12% happy with Congress."

  1. What are some of the enduring misconceptions and complexities that reporters should be aware of as they cover issues relating to Congressional approval levels?

Newswriting assignments

  1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
  4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

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