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Congress at polling nadir

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Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll and the Zogby companies, is an internationally renowned pollster, author and political pundit. Zogby spoke to the Trib regarding the implications of the polling nosedive taken by President Obama and Congress during the federal government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis.

Q: Can the approval ratings of Congress and the president plunge much lower at this point?

A: Well, Congress, certainly not. Once you get down into the 5 to 13 (percent) category, which is about what the numbers are showing, that's about as low as it gets.

There's always going to be somebody who will find (Congress) favorable, although I'd be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to lend their name to that favorable rating.

The president's numbers: In modern times Harry Truman was at 23 (percent approval), Nixon was at 23, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter certainly got down low.

Presidents can always plunge, although it's probably doubtful that this president can go below the high 30s, barring a calamity of some sort. He seems to have a solid core base at around 35 percent.

Q: And Republicans continue to take the biggest hit for the shutdown?

A: Certainly Republicans are the big losers, but neither party is getting good marks.

In my (most recent) polling, I had Republicans in Congress at a 13 percent approval rating, Democrats in Congress at a 24 percent approval rating.

Now, 24 percent arguably is better than 13 percent, but Democrats have no bragging rights on this whatsoever.

Q: With or without the drama of a shutdown, congressional approval ratings consistently are low. So can any conclusions be drawn regarding how these historically low approval ratings might impact next year's midterm elections?

A: That's a difficult one to answer because there are multiple variables that are involved. There is the quality of opposition, there is the factor of gerrymandering safe seats and then obviously there is turnout.

When people are unhappy, they either throw the bums out or they don't turn out to vote. And that's what we can't predict right now. Will they be angry enough next year to come out and vote?

Q: Would you say your polling indicates Americans find having a government in perpetual gridlock distasteful?

A: Absolutely. There was a time when there was a certain charm to gridlock. It meant that when Congress did pass legislation, it was thoroughly vetted and cautiously compromised and then done.

What's happened (with the shutdown) is so beyond the pale. What are you supposed to say about approval ratings that are in the low double digits or high single digits?

Q: But gerrymandering has rendered so many congressional incumbents virtually invulnerable to a challenge, so aren't the overall low approval ratings largely irrelevant in predicting the fate of individual representatives?

A: They are. The old rule was that Americans don't like Congress, but they like their congressman.

Of late, you're getting a bit of both — people don't like Congress and they don't like their congressman all that much anymore.

(That's because) ultimately, congressmen and -women have to produce something. And Congress has stopped doing that.

Americans don't vote to do nothing. They still want a government that does things. A government that does nothing is on perilous ground.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

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