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How Low Can Congress's Approval Rating Go? And Does It Matter?

David Callahan

It's no secret that the public's approval of Congress has been near an all-time low in recent years. According to Gallup, which has been tracking congressional approval since at least 1974, just 10 percent of Americans said they approved of how Congress was handling its job last August -- the lowest ratings ever recorded. 

Congress's approval rating has inched up in recent months -- to 19 percent earlier this month. But that's obviously not going to last after the shutdown. And it raises the question: How low can congressional approval get? Could it actually get as low as. . . zero? That seems unlikely. But single digits is eminently possible given that the public overwhelmingly disapproves of the shutdown. 

Whether that would translate into big electoral shifts in 2014 is another question. Looking at the last shutdown in the 1990s, Gallup comments that "historical Gallup data reveal that the repercussions of that past conflict ranged from none to short-lived, in terms of Americans' concerns about the U.S. and the political players involved."

Yes, Gallup data shows that the last two times we saw major turnovers in Congress, rebellions by voters were preceded by approval ratings which hit near all-time lows. However, those lows tended to come right before election time. 

Americans have famously short memories. A year from now it could be: Shutdown? What shutdown?

So even if congressional approval hits a new record low in coming weeks, there could still be time for members to repair things enough with the public to avoid an electoral sweep. Of course, safe gerrymandered districts makes that task a lot easier. And recent polling shows that Republican voters actually approve of the shutdown by a narrow margin.