While picking up 39 seats to regain control of the House of Representatives is a tall order for the GOP, the political environment is a very tough one for Democrats. Recent polls show that the Democrats' high-profile House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has lost favor with the public. More troubling for Pelosi, moderate Democrats in Congress increasingly feel that she is more of a problem than a plus for their party.
Pollsters routinely ask people whether they approve of disapprove of the job leaders are doing, and they also ask a softer question--whether we have a "favorable" or "unfavorable" opinion of them. When politicians have high unfavorable ratings, it is something to worry about. And Nancy Pelosi's unfavorable ratings are high. In a June Pew poll, 27% had a favorable opinion of her and 50% an unfavorable one. In June last year, those responses were 35% favorable and 41% unfavorable. President Obama has a much higher 56% favorability rating and a much lower unfavorable one (39%).
Pelosi presides over an institution that rarely gets high marks. Congress has diverse and complex responsibilities, and there is always a lot to criticize. But Congress' ratings are unusually low by historical standards, and record numbers of people are saying they want to send their own member of Congress packing. For many, the first female speaker has become a symbol of their dissatisfaction with Washington in general and Congress in particular.
The new issue of American Enterprise Institute's Political Report brought together the evidence. The editors reported that the April Pew rating of Congress was "the lowest rating in the quarter-century of Pew polls." They continued, "Congress' disapproval rating in the May CBS poll was the highest since 1978." According to these pollsters, people's views of their own member, usually more positive than their views of the institution as a whole, were the lowest ever. On Thursday Gallup called the low 2010 marks for Congress "a potentially ominous sign" for the Democratic majority in Congress, and of course, for Pelosi's position as speaker.
Dissatisfaction with the powerful speaker has arisen because of her priorities. The health care bill that she shepherded through Congress continues to get mediocre marks overall, and the administration's efforts to sell it to the public don't appear to be changing opinions. In a new Gallup/USA Today poll, 49% said it was a good thing that Congress passed the legislation, but a stubborn 46% said passage was a bad thing. Republicans were as negative as Democrats were positive about the bill. Independents were more negative (51%) than positive (43%).
In another recent Gallup question, 50% favored Congress repealing "all or much" of the health care legislation passed earlier this year, and 45% were opposed. In a late May Pew poll, 39% said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate this fall that supported the health care bill, but almost as many, 35%, said they would be less likely to do so. Republicans, who by every poll measure are more enthusiastic than Democrats about voting this fall, were especially emboldened: 74% of them said say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who voted for the bill.
Americans also aren't feeling very good about their own financial situations, and they don't think the stimulus bill Pelosi pushed through Congress has worked. A new Pew poll found that 60% say it had not helped the job situation, while only one-third said it had.
Pelosi represents one of the most liberal congressional districts in the country. Her politics reflect the sentiments of her district, and not those of the rest of the country. According to Gallup, in the past two years, Americans have become "increasingly likely to describe the Democratic Party's views as 'too liberal' and less likely to say its views are 'about right.'" In Gallup's latest poll from May, 49%, a near record, called the party too liberal.
The influential Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported this week on growing tensions between the "liberal speaker from San Francisco and her inner circle and moderate members who sense an 'electoral tidal' wave coming their way" in November. As the first female speaker, Pelosi is unusually prominent. She's much better known that her counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid. She's become a lightning rod, and polls on Pelosi give good reason for Democrats to be nervous about November.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.