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Is Pelosi America’s Most Unpopular Politician?

House Democrats voted Wednesday to keep House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California as their leader, despite  a challenge from Representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a Blue Dog Democrat.

After yesterday’s article in which I pointed out that, indeed, there was evidence that health care bill and the federal bailout package had hurt Democrats in this month’s elections — a conclusion that a lot of our readers considered to be self-evident — I’m a bit reluctant to belabor another obvious point.

But this just in: Ms. Pelosi is not very popular with the American public.

Quinnipiac University had a poll out this morning that showed Ms. Pelosi’s favorability rating at 25 percent and her unfavorable rating at 55 percent. This rating is quite a bit worse on balance than that for her Republican counterpart in the House, the soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner, whom 20 percent of respondents viewed favorably against 19 percent unfavorably.

Favorability ratings can sometimes differ quite a bit from polling firm to polling firm — but Ms. Pelosi’s poor numbers in the Quinnipiac poll were no anomaly. A CNN poll last week put her scores at 33 percent favorable against 52 percent unfavorable, and found that about half of Democrats would rather she be replaced. A poll for ABC News and the Washington Post conducted just before the election had Ms. Pelosi’s numbers at 29 percent favorable and 58 percent unfavorable.

In fact, Ms. Pelosi is among the least popular politicians in America today — perhaps the single least popular one that maintains an active political role.

I took an average of favorability scores for Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Boehner, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and about a dozen other prominent politicians, including several Republican candidates for President and some past presidential and vice presidential nominees. The average consists of the most recent survey by each polling firm as listed at and accounts for surveys going back to Labor Day, except in cases when fewer than three polling firms have released data on the politician since then, in which case I used all ratings since the start of 2010.

The average score for Ms. Pelosi was 30 percent favorable and 55 percent unfavorable, giving her a net favorability rating of negative-25. This was the worst score of any politician in the study by some margin. Others with substantially net negative scores included Dick Cheney (-17), Harry Reid (-16), Sarah Palin (-14), Newt Gingrich (-10) and George W. Bush (-9; his numbers have improved some), but Ms. Pelosi’s scores were somewhat worse over all.

Mr. Boehner is not yet terribly well known to the American public, but so far he has an average favorability rating of 26 percent and an unfavorability rating also of 26 percent. By contrast, Ms. Pelosi’s scores when she became majority leader in 2007 were on the order of 30 percent favorable and 25 percent unfavorable.

If we expanded to the playing field to include some politicians who no longer play a prominent national role, we might find some with comparably bad ratings to Ms. Pelosi. John Edwards, after admitting to an affair, had an average rating of negative-28 in two polls conducted in late 2009, although nobody has bothered to survey him this year. Tom Delay’s scores averaged about a negative-25 at the time he left office in 2006, although he was less well-known at that time than Ms. Pelosi is now.

A party leader’s principal goal isn’t necessarily to be popular, and Ms. Pelosi was exceptionally successful at advancing legislation through the House in 2009 and 2010, whipping votes to pass a stimulus package, an energy bill, and a health care bill (twice!), among many other pieces of the Democratic agenda.

Still, the role of the party leader changes when a party goes from being in the majority to the minority. And it noteworthy that, of the several reasons that Jonathan Allen and John F. Harris at Politico cite for why Ms. Pelosi is likely to retain her top position in spite of her poor public image, almost none have to do with any tactical or strategic advantage the Democrats might gain from selecting her; instead, they have to do with institutional politics.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.