The Associated Press analysis of their new poll (taken 5/7-9/07) used the lede:
People think the Democratic-led Congress is doing just as dreary a job as President Bush, following four months of bitter political standoffs and little progress on Iraq and a host of domestic issues.And a paragraph later:
The survey found only 35 percent approve of how Congress is handling its job, down 5 percentage points in a month. That gives lawmakers the same bleak approval rating as Bush, who has been mired at about that level since last fall, including his dip to a record low for the AP-Ipsos poll of 32 percent last January.
The comparison of the two series is interesting. As the top figures shows, approval of Congress has generally been rising since the Democrats took control in January. The red line is the more sensitive trend estimate. It turns slightly down at the end, while the standard trend estimate continues to rise. The slight difference is not enough to convince me that there is any downturn at this point, despite the 5 point change in the AP poll over a month. As the graphic makes clear, there is lots of noise from poll to poll and the trend estimate is much more reliable than a poll to poll comparison. By contrast, the Presidential trend in the second figure has been quite flat since January, as both blue and red lines agree.
The level of approval of Congress was very low in late 2006 and remains well short of its high points in early 1998 and following 9/11 in 2002. (See the entire Congressional approval series since 1990 here.) But Congress is rarely loved. In the 17 years since 1990, Congressional approval has risen above 50% only twice-- rising just above 50% in early 1998 before dropping sharply after the impeachment of President Clinton late in 1998, and for a few months following 9/11. For the vast majority of the time since 1990, approval of Congress has been below 45% and below 40% for much of the time.
In 1995, following the Republicans capture of control, approval stood at just over 30% and did not break 40% until mid-1997. By contrast, Presidents routinely enjoy approval over 50% and are seen as in some trouble politically when their approval falls below 50%. President Bush's lengthy record below 40% is unusually low and long in comparison to previous presidents (though a number dip briefly to the 30s.)
In this light, while approvals of 35% apiece may be numerically equal, the political implications in light of historical polling are not the same. The most obvious difference is that in 2007 Congressional approval has been rising while that of the President has been stagnant. Democrats in Congress are not enjoying very high levels of approval, but they are doing considerably better than Republican members. (See the graph below.) While Democrats lead Republicans by 8 points on approval, Republican disapproval is a whopping 21 points higher than disapproval of the Democrats.
There is a famous question in political science: "why do voters hate Congress but love their Congressman?" The simple answer is that the institution is a convenient whipping boy for the President but also for its own members. Many members (who often enjoy personal approval levels well above 50%) run for reelection by running against Congress as an institution. The result is approval ratings of the Congress that are poor in comparison to those of the President or of its individual members. Thus it becomes a dangerous thing to make direct comparisons of Presidential and Congressional approval. The two are quite different in their norms and dynamics. It would be better to look at Congressional approval in light of its own history, and the Republican victory in the 1994 elections and in government after 1995 provides an excellent point of comparison.