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Republicans Didn’t Get Less Popular After All That Speaker Drama — They Were Already Unpopular

The election for speaker of the House may have gripped Washington, D.C., for almost a week earlier this month, but the rest of the country apparently reacted with a big fat shrug.

According to polls, Americans are indifferent about both Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s election and the chaotic process that led to it. Despite what some suggestive surveys might lead you to believe, the GOP revolt against McCarthy doesn’t seem to have turned more Americans off from the Republican Party. But the nation does have low expectations for the next two years of federal governance.

Let’s start with some sexy toplines. (We’ll get to what’s wrong with them in a moment.) Two polls found that a plurality of Americans thought that the drama surrounding the speaker election hurt the GOP. According to a HarrisX/Deseret News poll conducted right after McCarthy’s election, 41 percent of registered voters felt that the Republican Party was weaker after the speaker election, and only 23 percent thought it was stronger. In addition, 43 percent of registered voters told HarrisX/the Deseret News that the ordeal made them trust the Republican Party less. Meanwhile, 34 percent of respondents told Ipsos that the drama weakened the Republican Party, and only 19 percent said it strengthened the party. 

In reality, these poll questions don’t tell us that much. We’ve written previously about the dangers of pollsters asking whether a given event makes people more or less likely to vote for a candidate or party. Asking whether the speaker election made people trust the GOP less falls into the same trap. The question allows people to express dissatisfaction with the election without considering where their feelings started on the issue. (For example, quite a few of those people — i.e., Democrats — probably had little or no trust for the GOP to begin with.)

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And asking Americans to be pundits and assess whether the GOP is weaker in the wake of the speaker vote is less informative than just looking at the GOP’s actual standing. Several polls have shown that the Republican Party’s brand hasn’t changed since the disharmony. It was damaged before the speaker vote, and it’s still damaged after it:

  • Twenty-one percent of respondents said Republicans exhibited stronger leadership than Democrats in Washington in a November 2022 Ipsos poll. And the same pollster showed no significant change after the speaker vote: Nineteen percent said the GOP showed stronger leadership in January 2023.
  • Civiqs maintains a running tracker of whether registered voters have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, and it has remained steady at 64 percent unfavorable, 26 percent favorable since Dec. 22, 2022.
  • Similarly, every week, YouGov/The Economist asks Americans whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of Republicans in Congress. Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 9, their favorable rating barely changed (from 37 percent to 36.5 percent), and their unfavorable rating slightly ticked up (from 56.7 percent to 58.9 percent).
  • Finally, Republicans in Congress remained a net of 15 percentage points underwater with registered voters before and after the speaker vote, according to Morning Consult. Interestingly, though, opinions of McCarthy got worse after the vote. His net favorability rating was -20 points on Dec. 29 and -26 points on Jan. 8, even as his name recognition improved slightly between the midterm elections and the speaker election.

Ultimately, Americans didn’t seem to care whether McCarthy won the speakership election. The Ipsos poll found that 33 percent of Americans approved of McCarthy’s selection, but only 35 percent disapproved; 33 percent weren’t sure. And YouGov/The Economist found that 27 percent thought McCarthy should have been elected speaker, while only 13 percent preferred another Republican; the remaining 60 percent weren’t sure or didn’t care.

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That could be key to understanding why the speaker election didn’t seem to budge public opinion: Americans weren’t tuning in. According to Ipsos, almost half of adults (49 percent) did not follow the speaker election news at all or followed it “not so closely.” A similar 42 percent felt that the fight over the speakership had very little to do with their daily lives. 

Another reason could be that Americans were already so cynical about Congress that the chaos of early January made them nod and say, “Yup, sounds about right.” In the HarrisX/Deseret News survey, 56 percent of registered voters thought that the dispute was just “politics as usual.”

And that cynicism apparently means Americans are just expecting more of the same from this Congress. According to YouGov/The Economist, they don’t believe McCarthy will be able to serve effectively as speaker (33 percent to 25 percent). And according to Ipsos, 61 percent of Americans think the speaker fight made it less likely that Republicans and President Biden will get anything done together in the next two years. So further gridlock in Congress may not affect how Americans feel about it, either; their expectations are already on the floor.

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Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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