The Perils of Presidential Disapproval

I thought I would begin my post by reminding readers what this project I’m working on is all about. Last semester I took Legislative Process, a government class that examines Congress from all sides, and I was inspired to do my freshman Monroe project about congressional elections. Specifically, my goal throughout this research has been to compare the 1994 and 2006 midterm elections. I picked these two years for a reason; 1994 is when the Republicans took control of the House and Senate for the first time in decades, and 2006 is when the Democrats took their power back. It is worth noting that there this one large difference between the 1994 and 2006 elections; the 1994 election came during Bill Clinton’s first term, while the 2006 election occurred in George W. Bush’s second term. Nonetheless, both were midterm elections experiencing similar phenomena. When I first came up with the idea for this project, I had no idea how I would compare these two elections, especially since there were so many angles that could be examined. With the help of my advisor, Professor Larry Evans, I decided to study both elections piece by piece, looking at everything from presidential popularity to key issues individually then adding my conclusions together at the end.

In this post, I will be discussing one of the most important pieces of the puzzle: presidential popularity and its effect on congressional elections. We’ve all heard the phrase “riding the president’s coattails” because it’s a powerful phenomenon. The president serves as the de facto leader of his, and maybe one day her, party, and as a result the president’s popularity can directly affect his party’s electoral fortunes. In the cases of the 1994 and 2006 midterm elections, the public was not pleased with the president and his party suffered as a result.

Let’s start with 1994. Bill Clinton had been in office for two years and the optimism surrounding his campaign had greatly faded. When Clinton entered office, the public had faith that he would improve the sluggish economy and follow through on his promises from the campaign because Congress was controlled by his party. Fast forward two years and you see voters appalled by how little Clinton had accomplished. Clinton’s plan for massive health care reform had stalled because of partisan conflict and his economic stimulus bill was defeated in the Senate by a Republican filibuster. The economy had grown during Clinton’s first two years in office, but upper class voters were benefitting much more from this growth than the middle class.

Despite these difficulties, Clinton’s approval rating, which was around 45%, was not especially low for a first-term president near a midterm election. It is perhaps for this reason that pundits did not accurately predict the outcome of the 1994 election. Pundits from both sides knew the public opinion tide had turned against the Democrats and they expected the party to lose seats in both the House and the Senate, but not to such a large extent. Clinton’s approval rating was low, but not unheard of, so it seemed that his party might be able to hold on to Congress.

Studies later showed that while the percentage of voters that disapproved of Clinton’s job performance was not exceptionally high, the intensity of their disapproval was exceptionally strong. One researcher found that 30% of the public not only disapproved of Clinton, but actually hated him. In his two years in office, Clinton had managed to alienate many swing-voters. Clinton’s support for gays in the military and gun control, as well as his desire for racial and gender diversity in the appointments he made, concerned more conservative “Reagan Democrats.” Clinton’s one great legislative victory, the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, incensed blue-collar Democrats who feared their jobs would be sent overseas.

As it turned out, anger towards Clinton was a powerful motivator; people were so upset that they felt the need to go out and vote for Republicans to send a message. Approximately 44% of white southern males, who showed the least support for Clinton, said their vote in House elections was a vote against Clinton.

Further proof of the connection between Clinton’s unpopularity and the Democrats’ electoral fortunes can be seen in how often House votes lined up with presidential ratings. In 1994, about 86% of House votes were consistent with presidential approval ratings. That is to say, 86% of the time, Democrats that approved of Clinton voted for a Democratic House candidate and Republicans that disapproved of Clinton’s performance voted for a Republican House candidate. The comparable figure for 1990 was 68%. It seems the public’s discontent with Clinton’s performance as president turned out to be crippling for his party in the 1994 election.

Now let’s jump to 2006. This was George W. Bush’s second term and his party had done well in the first midterm election he faced. In 2002, Bush’s popularity was still extremely high, as it had been since September 11th; as a result, his party managed to gain seats in Congress. By 2006, however, public opinion had turned against Bush rather strongly and his approval rating had fallen to around 35%. In addition, 55% of the country said they felt Bush was not honest and trustworthy, which was a shock because when his approval ratings had fallen before, polls still showed the majority of voters considered Bush honest.

Polls also showed that Bush was now hated by many more people than he was strongly liked by. Only 15% of Republicans said they strongly approved of Bush’s job performance in the months leading up to the election, while 42% of Democrats said they strongly disapproved of Bush’s job performance. And as seen in 1994, anger is strong motivator when it comes to voting; the more you hate the president, the more likely you are to go out and vote against his party in the midterm election.

Much like Clinton in 1994, Bush’s approval rating had fallen because he had alienated several key voting groups through the policy decisions he had made. Bush’s mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath had incensed many Americans and driven independents away from him. Fiscal conservatives disapproved of the growth in government spending and the fact that Bush repeatedly signed spending bills into law. Many Republicans also disliked Bush’s stance on immigration; he had backed a bill that would give illegal immigrants a path to amnesty and conservatives felt this let the immigrants off without punishment for breaking the law.

The issue that drove Bush’s approval rating down the fastest, however, was the war in Iraq. The war began with relatively strong public support, but as the war stretched on and images of explosions showed up constantly on news programs, public support waned. Bush was largely blamed for what seemed like a losing war, and as approval ratings for the war dropped, Bush’s dropped as well.

The Iraq war made it more difficult to determine whether or not votes for the Democrats were votes directly against Bush. Polls clearly showed that voters angry with the situation in Iraq voted for Democrats, but the connection to Bush is less certain. The public generally blamed Bush for the mishandling of the Iraq war, so by extension when they voted against the war, they voted against Bush. Bush also managed to hurt his party by alienating so many voters in his own base, voters that might have come out to support Republicans in the midterm elections if they had not felt so incensed.

From both of these examples, it is clear that a lack of public approval for the president can be damaging to his party in midterm elections. What seems especially clear, however, is that a president’s party tends to suffer the most when he is despised by at least a portion of the public. Presidents have had approval ratings sitting around 40% going into midterm elections before, but not had their parties lose as many seats as the Democrats did in 1994 and the Republicans did in 2006. In Clinton and Bush’s cases, they were so strongly disliked by a portion of the public that people who might have otherwise stayed at home on Election Day felt the need to go out and vote the president’s party out of Congress. The lesson seems to be that sometimes it’s okay to be disliked as president, but when you’re hated by a significant portion of the population, your party is going to suffer greatly in midterm elections.


  1. Hi Rachel! Your research on this topic is commendable–I’m particularly impressed by your attention to detail. Your writing is clear and your subject is engaging. It was kind of fun to read about two elections that, although they occurred in our lifetime, feel like a long time ago. I also think your topic is helpful because it gives us new methods of thinking about the most recent midterm election, in which Obama arguably faced a referendum on his policies. I find it interesting (albeit sad) that the most passionate voters seem frequently to be those disgusted by how our government is being run. I also think your post makes a good point about how crucial certain segments of the American population can be in determining the fate of an election–the “Reagan Democrats” for the 1994 election, hard-line conservatives for the 2006 election (in addition to everyone else just hating Bush…but you know). Regardless, if part of a President’s base turns against him, it evidently can have a huge impact for his party overall.

    Anyway, great job! Can’t wait to read your other posts.