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Congressional Republicans and the 2012 Election

- February 1, 2012

A journalist writes:

bq. I’m tentatively writing a profile of Eric Cantor, and one of the big-picture aspects of the piece I was hoping to get my head around was the question of who voters hold responsible for congressional intransigence. I’ve always been under the general impression that voters don’t usually differentiate all that much between the parties in their low regard for Congress, even when one party is pretty clearly responsible for Congress’s failings; I’m wondering (a) if that’s actually right, and (b) if so, whether there’s any reason to think based on the evidence that that could change under remarkable circumstances like Cantor et al’s current strategy: the fights over the debt ceiling, payroll tax, etc. I.e., is it reasonable to wonder whether the strategy of legislative intransigence that the Republicans have pursued to great effect since 2009 could actually go too far, and damage the Republican brand with the electorate in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections?

My response was this.  One good place to start is with David Jones and Monika McDermott, who have a book on how congressional approval affects congressional elections.  In short, when approval drops, the majority party loses seats.  I’ve posted about their work here and here.

But I don’t think their work looks at whether congressional tactics (e.g., intransigence) are really to blame for low congressional approval.  It’s important to remember that congressional approval does wax and wane, and that depends a lot on the economy (surprise, surprise).  Although congressional approval does affect congressional elections, above and beyond the effect of the economy.

I don’t know of any research on whether congressional tactics hurt a party’s “brand” and therefore its chances in a presidential election.  Personally, I’m skeptical.  Voting behavior in presidential elections is much more related to presidential approval than congressional approval, as Alan Abramowitz has noted.