Nancy Pelosi has overcome some opposition from House Democrats and is almost certain to be elected speaker on Thursday. But Pelosi, who was also speaker from 2007 to 2011, is a fairly unpopular figure, and one of the chief arguments of her Democratic critics has been that she will be a drag on the party politically.
Whether she’ll be a drag on other Democratic candidates or not, her critics are right about one thing: Pelosi is not popular. Nevertheless, the California Democrat will not be a unique drag on her party — virtually all congressional leaders are unpopular in modern U.S. politics. Pelosi is unpopular, will likely remain unpopular and may grow even more unpopular, but that would probably be the case for anyone Democrats chose to be speaker.
Take the current crop of Republican and Democratic party leaders in Congress. According to the latest polling average at RealClearPolitics, Pelosi has a 33 percent favorable rating and a 48 percent unfavorable rating. That gives her a -15 point net favorability rating, which is similar to the ratings of outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (-22), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (-10) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (-20).1
Why are virtually all congressional leaders unpopular? First, there’s the job itself. A congressional leader … leads Congress. And Congress is a deeply unpopular institution — especially nowadays. We don’t know exactly why Congress is loathed, but I suspect that it’s because while presidents get to give speeches in front of huge crowds, lawmakers are tasked with the more messy process of holding hearings, whipping votes and coming up with legislative compromises that often leave everyone with something to dislike. Looking back at the last several House speakers, they all became more unpopular on the job:
|Speaker||Start of term||End of term||Change|
The further you go back in history, the more sparse polling is (which is why we’re looking back only to Newt Gingrich), but the data suggests that speakers are more controversial than they were a few decades ago. It’s fairly clear that, for example, Massachusetts Democrat Tip O’Neill, who was House speaker from 1977 to 1987, was more popular than the more modern speakers. That is not surprising. Not only is Congress more disliked now than it was then, but negative partisanship is also more powerful — it’s more difficult to get a Democratic voter to like a Republican politician and vice versa. In today’s politics, partisans hate the leaders of the opposite party more than they used to. Republican voters disliked former President Barack Obama more than they disliked previous Democratic presidents. President Trump is opposed by Democrats more than past GOP presidents were.
Congressional leaders have a second problem that presidents and presidential candidates don’t — they get plenty of negative attention from the opposition but little boosting from their own party. In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, for example, there was an aggressive effort by Republicans to attack Pelosi and link Democratic House candidates to her. But outside of Pelosi’s staffers, little effort was made to rebut those attacks — the Democratic Party was promoting individual House candidates. That helps explain Pelosi’s favorability ratings and Ryan’s too: Everyone in the other party hates you, but your own party is not particularly jazzed about you either. According to the 2018 midterm exit polls, about 25 percent of the voters who said they had an unfavorable view of Pelosi were Democrats.
But there is one unique element about Pelosi, compared with other party leaders: her gender and the potential for sexism. The United States has never had a female president, vice president or Senate majority leader. Nearly half the states have never elected a woman as governor. The only woman to serve as the top congressional leader in the House or Senate is Pelosi. The woman to come closest to winning the White House is Hillary Clinton. And both Pelosi and Clinton have lackluster favorability ratings. Simply put, there’s little evidence yet that a woman can be a top political leader in the U.S. and also be popular. I think the anti-Pelosi commercials run by Republicans in the run-up to the 2010 elections and her gender in part explain why the California Democrat saw a huge decline in her favorability ratings from when she became speaker the first time, in 2007, to the end of that tenure, in 2011. The last several speakers have become more unpopular while in the job, but Pelosi’s drop of 49 percentage points is distinctly large.
To conclude, Pelosi is one of three public faces of the current 13-day partial government shutdown (in addition to Schumer and Trump). I expect that she will be a main player in many such impasses with Trump over the next two years, which means that she will be one of the symbols of gridlock in Washington. And she is a she. Even if Democrats rally to her for standing up to the president, I suspect that independents and Republicans will view her even less favorably. Maybe another Democratic speaker would have started off the new Congress with better ratings than Pelosi’s. But the unpopularity of previous House Speaker John Boehner, McConnell, Ryan and Schumer suggests that that person would eventually become unpopular too. At least right now, it seems that you can be a top congressional leader or you can be politically popular, but you can’t be both.
Dustin Dienhart contributed research.