Why 70 percent of Americans disapprove of GOP leadership in Congress

Coinciding with the recent uncertainty about GOP leadership in Congress, two national polls have found that Republicans on Capitol Hill are floundering in the eyes of the public. 

Yuri Gripas
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) leaves after House Republicans meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington October 20, 2015.

An overwhelming majority of Americans are dissatisfied with current Republican leadership in Congress, two recent polls found.

In a survey conducted by CNN and ORC International, 74 percent of respondents answered negatively to the question, “Do you approve or disapprove of what the Republican leaders in the US House and Senate have done so far this year?” Among Republicans, discontent with the party leadership is just as rampant – only 37 percent said they approve of GOP leadership in Congress, while 54 percent answered to the contrary. Eight percent had no opinion.

An ABC/Washington Post poll found a similar disapproval rating of Republicans in Congress: 71 percent.

There are two main factors for the discontent, says Doug Heye, a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics and former high ranking Republican adviser.

Conflict within the party and a general sense of distrust for all things Washington. 

The conflicting factions within the party, "we see evident in the primaries and most recently, the House speaker race," he says.

It doesn't help that Americans are also generally wary of establishment politics. 

"We haven’t had this type of anti-Washington tide in a long time, and it's reflected in not only the presidential election but the last wave of congressional elections," Mr. Heye points to the political outsiders who seem to be winning the hearts of constituents over Capitol Hill veterans. In the presidential campaign, Donald Trump would be a prime example. 

The latest wave of disaffection coincides with a moment of great uncertainty within the party.

"A big reason the GOP's image is worse continues to be the fact that many members of their own party disapprove," The Washington Post's Scott Clement reports, following the release of its poll. 

As House Speaker John Boehner prepares to step down at the end of the month, no successor has been confirmed yet. Two weeks ago, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader and heir apparent, abruptly withdrew from the race. Now, Rep. Paul Ryan has agreed – reluctantly – to take the reins, but under a set of very stringent conditions.

One condition is that he must have the support of the Freedom Caucus, a faction of ultraconservative representatives who drove Mr. Boehner to desert his post and Mr. McCarthy to drop out. While some say this group of 30-some representatives have deepened the party's internal divide, a poll from Monmouth University found that a good chunk of Republican voters believe they have too little power: 39 percent said they don't have enough power, while 25 percent said they have too much. 

“The turmoil over selecting a new Speaker of the House reflects an unhappy party base," Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement. "Because this disaffection reaches every corner of the GOP electorate, there is no clear indication about which route the party should take to right this ship."

Mr. Ryan, of Wisconsin, was the most popular candidate for speaker out of three potential successors posed by the CNN/ORC poll. According to the findings, 37 percent of Americans viewed him favorably, and 31 percent unfavorably.

The other two congressmen in question, McCarthy and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, garnered low favorability ratings of 22 percent and 12 percent, respectively, but partially because many respondents simply didn’t know who they were. In the case of Chaffetz, more than 50 percent of respondents said they’ve never heard of him. His office could not be reached for comment. 

Ryan’s bid for speaker is far from definite, as some of his colleagues see his requests, which he laid out in a press conference Tuesday night, as wishful thinking. Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a member of the Freedom Caucus, told the National Review that Ryan’s demands are “a list of unmeetable conditions.”  

“The best thing I can assume is that he really doesn’t want the job,” he says. “You put forth a list of conditions that nobody is going to throw their weight behind, and force people to tell you ‘no,’ rather than the other way around ... that’s the only thing that makes sense to me.”

In terms of favorability, the Republicans’ cohorts across the aisle are not faring much better. The ABC/Washington Post poll cited a 59 percent disapproval rating for Democrats in Congress. Meanwhile, both studies offer good news for President Obama.

CNN/ORC reported that 45 percent of respondents said they trust President Obama over Republicans in Congress to handle the major issues facing the country today, and ABC/Washington Post found Obama’s job performance approval to be over 50 percent – the first time since May 2013.

"There's a whole lot more that unifies Republicans than should cause any kind of fissures. We certainly agree with each other more than we do with the Democrats," Heye says. "My hope is that we find ways to work better together." 

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