According to a Gallup poll, Congressional approval rating is at a mere 20% (it use to be much lower in the past years) as of Sept. 2016.


Yet, in the US senate, there's a:

90% re-election rating in the House

96% re-election rate in the Senate.


What might be a reason for such a big disconnect? If the people do not approve, why are they electing the same people? Is it do to the lack of knowledge voters have about the candidates?

  • Because it's always "the other side's" fault...never one's own side. People will keep electing the person that's on their own team.
    – user1530
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 15:48
  • 1
    Because our plurality elections don't give us any other choice but to vote for the lesser of two evils, which are chosen by the political parties, which have gerrymandered districts so that they always win.
    – endolith
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 15:06
  • 1
    Because of the important follow-up question: do you approve of YOUR Congress critter? That result is 30+ percent higher. Everyone thinks that everyone ELSE needs to throw the bums out.
    – Foo Bar
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 0:17

3 Answers 3


Very simple.

  1. ~ 50% of people are disapproving of their own congresscritter on partisan lines (if your congresscritter is wrong party from you), never mind other ones.

    ~ of the other 50%, some of them approve of their own congresscritter but disapprove of the rest of Congress.

    ~ And some, probably disapprove of their own one from same party, over not being quite as they want ideologically (too partisan, too centrist, etc...). Always something to pick on.

  2. Lot of people disapprove of congresscritters in general. They don't seem to do anything useful, sit there renaming Post Offices. They never pass enough things people want (no matter who's majority). They squabble.

On the other hand, high incumbency rate is because US system is stacked that way, by design:

  • Gerrymandering creates "safe" districts, where a nominee of party X is nearly guaranteed general election win. Both parties have theirs, and like it.

  • Incumbent advantages:

    • Main factor in winning elections (well, one of the main) is name recognition. Incumbents of course have much higher name recognition - ESPECIALLY in primaries (see safe districts above - most incumbents only need to win a primary)

    • Fundraising. Incumbent doesn't actually need to do any work and can spend time fundraising

    • While not officially corruption, of course incumbent will have easier time to raise money, as they are already in office and can do favors for people.

    • Bully pulpit for incumbent candidates. 

  • 1
    If you add the Franking Privilege this becomes a complete answer: fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS22771.pdf “… [S]trong criticism of the franking privilege developed regarding the use of the frank as an influence in congressional elections and the perceived advantage it gives incumbent Members running for reelection. Contemporary opponents of the franking privilege continue to express concerns about both its cost and its effect on congressional elections.”
    – user9790
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 15:14


There is a common impression that gerrymandering creates safe districts for the party doing the redistricting. This is not true. Gerrymandering creates safe districts for the party NOT doing the redistricting. This is because the gerrymandering party packs as many of the opposing party's voters into as few districts as possible. I.e. if the gerrymandering party is going to lose, they want to lose by a lot. If they win, they want to win more narrowly in many districts rather than by a lot in a few districts.

Note how the Democrats won in 2006 by running a bunch of moderates for seats that Republicans normally won in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania with Republican gerrymanders. And then lost those same seats in 2010 when their moderates found themselves out of step with their districts.

Partisan districts

The greater problem in terms of partisan districts is that voters have been choosing to live in municipalities and neighborhoods with people that are similar to them. So most Democrats live in urban areas where all their neighbors are Democrats. Those produce districts where 90% of the vote is for a Democrat. Republican neighborhoods aren't quite as partisan, the most Republican district (TX-13, R+32) is less partisan than the tenth most Democratic district (FL-24, D+34).

Another way of saying this is that rural and suburban districts are less partisan than urban districts. But they still have a distinct partisan lean. Note that in Cook's partisan measure, the top Republican district is located in the northern part of Texas. There is no way for that district not to be heavily partisan. If there were, they'd have gerrymandered some of its voters into bluer districts in the cities or border counties.

The ten most Democratic districts represent New York City (5 districts), Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago, San Francisco, and Miami. Like with the Texas district, there is no way to connect these areas in the center of the city with more moderate suburban districts. Note that Miami (Florida) and Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) were redistricted by Republicans who wouldn't if they could. Oakland and San Francisco were redistricted by a supposedly non-partisan commission that nevertheless increased Democratic control of the state (California).

There has clearly been an increase in partisan districts, but blaming it purely on gerrymandering is confusing the issue. The biggest problem is partisan sorting, where people move to areas with like minded neighbors.


By the very nature of incumbency, an incumbent is someone who previously found a winning coalition in that district. In order for an incumbent to lose, there needs to be some kind of change from that.

The change could be that there is an inspiring leader on the top of the ticket. Republicans who lost in 2008 and 2012 blame that. Or the change could be that the inspiring leader is not on the ticket. Democrats in 2010 and 2014 blame that.

Redistricting can change the district. Many Republicans in 2012 and Democrats in 2012 and 2014 blame that for losses. Even in 2016, a court ordered redistricting in Florida toppled several incumbents in what was otherwise a good year for incumbents.

Incumbents also have an advantage with fundraising. After all, it is more efficient to contribute to someone who is currently in office than to someone who might reach office. Contributors can always contribute after the election if they just want to influence policy.


Even in partisan districts, incumbents could lose in primaries. And that happens. However, the advantages of incumbency are even stronger there. Short of redistricting, the incumbent already has a strong group of supporters in that district. Further, while challengers may have their differences with the incumbents, they still prefer the incumbent to the other party's challenger. This often leaves them reluctant to really push on the incumbent's failings.

Voters too have a tendency to punish negative attacks. Yes, they hurt the target, but they often hurt the attacker as well. Those who slightly prefer the challenger may be offended by an attack on an incumbent candidate that they like almost as well.

It's also especially difficult for more moderate candidates to beat more partisan candidates in primaries. The reverse is more likely, as the most active support tends to come from the most partisan. Most primary victories tend to be the more partisan candidate over the more moderate, e.g. Matthew Cartwright defeating Tim Holden after redistricting made it possible for a more partisan candidate to win that district.

Primaries have very low turnout compared to general elections, even in places where the primary is essentially the election for most offices. This gives the advantage to the more committed voters, who are often more partisan as well.

Mine vs. yours

It is entirely possible for me to think that my representative in Congress is great while thinking that everyone else is an idiot. So even though the majority in each district approve of their own representative, we can still think that 434 out of 435 members of the House are stupid.

It also doesn't help that there are multiple groups. There are establishment Republicans and Democrats, liberal Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats, Tea Party Republicans, and other groups. Someone who likes Democrats doesn't like Republicans and vice versa. Someone who likes the Tea Party is frustrated with establishment Republicans who didn't get on board. Someone who likes establishment Republicans is frustrated with Tea Party obstructionism. And let's not get started on how most Democrats regard the Blue Dogs.

Changing my choice for representative doesn't fix that. If my choice loses elections, I'm frustrated. If my choice wins, I'm still frustrated, because my choice fails to deliver. All those other people with their own choices are keeping us from achieving our goals.

Democrats are unhappy with Congress because it's controlled by Republicans. Republicans are unhappy because control of Congress hasn't bought them much without control of the presidency. Perhaps things will change once Republicans control both, come January.

  • 3
    I get what you are saying but there's some inferences here that can be misconstrued. Democrats don't move to cities because there are other democrats there. People move to cities because they like cities. These people just happen to either be democrats, or (as a demographic) become democrats given the nature of urban diversity. It's not like democrats and republicans are all thinking "I need to move somewhere where my neighbor votes for the same people I do."
    – user1530
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 15:52
  • Maybe. But people do seem to move places which make the same tradeoffs they do. The reasons why aren't as important as the impact, which is increasingly partisan districts. My main point is that fixing gerrymanders won't necessarily fix the problem of partisan districts. Many of the most partisan districts are in the middle of places that are going to be partisan regardless.
    – Brythan
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 17:05
  • I like your answer better than mine. :)
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 18:11
  • There's no arguing the impact. I agree with that. As for gerrymandering the issue is artificially partisan districts. Districts will naturally be partisan.
    – user1530
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 18:13

In addition to the reasons mentioned in the other answers, it is unusual for U.S. Congressional elections to become "nationalized". In other words, most of the time, we do not have most of the country decide to "throw all the bums out." It happened in 1994 when Newt Gingrich campaigned on a "Contract with America". I can think of four reasons this might be the case:

1) American voters associate federal government actions with presidential proposals and decisions, rather than with the party make-up of Congress.

2) There are lots of government decisions that are not controlled by Congress. If replacing the Congress could make your apartment rent cheaper, or your local school much better, or your local policeman more polite, or lower crime in your neighborhood, you would be more likely to care who was in Congress.

3) Only one-third of the U.S. Senate is up for election each cycle. This means that most of the time, it is not worth getting one's hopes up for a complete change in the composition of Congress. A minority of Senators (often made up of Senators elected in other cycles) can frustrate the efforts of "the new crowd".

4) Even if it sometimes seems that top Congressmen are controllable by blackmail, it is rare for the blackmailable offenses to become public. When a scandal does become public, usually only one Congressman is implicated. That Congressman is usually forced to resign or not run for re-election. As a result, most Americans only "disapprove" of Congress; they do not feel active "revulsion and loathing" for Congress. If the latter mood were to become common, I would expect "throw the bums out" to become a popular idea.

  • 1
    If you write or call your congressman they might help you with your rent, facilitate changing things at a local school, and pass a message to a local cop. Certainly they will point you to the resources to do it yourself.
    – user9389
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 0:07
  • 4th paragraph is mere conjecture, and should be rejected in its entirety. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 1:08
  • @DrunkCynic -- I count at least ten blackmailable scandals that became public news in the last 30 years. In each of them, only one Congressman took the heat at the time. Nine of these Congressmen were either forced to resign during their then-current term, or chose not to stand for re-election, or were defeated in their re-election campaign. Four of these Congressmen were in senior leadership.
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 1:24
  • Disputes over franking privileges and semi-independent campaign funds (such as the Keating Five and Newt Gingrich's course in American Civics) do not fit this pattern of well-publicized "blackmailable scandals" resulting in single Congressmen being promptly punished by loss of their offices.
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 1:38
  • 1
    To be fair it's not a congressman's job to deal with local anything, but it's often easier to get things done semi-officially than follow the proscribed procedure.
    – user9389
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 16:56

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