With the 2010 midterm elections approaching, the public remains highly critical of the leaders of both political parties in Congress. Just more than a third (35%) approve of Democratic leaders’ performance, while 53% disapprove.

Approval of Democratic leaders has fallen 13 points since February 2009. GOP congressional leaders receive comparable ratings. Just 31% approve of their job performance while 55% disapprove, which is little changed since early 2009.

The low ratings today for the leaders of both parties are about the same as the ratings in June 2006, a midterm election year that ended with Democrats taking control of Congress from Republicans. At this stage in the 2002 campaign, approval ratings for the leaders of both parties were much more positive: 50% approved of GOP leaders’ job performance while about as many (47%) approved of Democratic leaders’.

GOP Leaders Get Mixed Ratings from Base

Republicans continue to give their party’s congressional leaders fairly modest approval ratings. Currently, 54% of Republicans approve of the job that Republican leaders in Congress are doing, while 37% disapprove. Still, positive ratings for GOP leaders among Republicans are slightly higher than they were a year ago (47% approve, 41% disapprove).

A majority (52%) of those who agree with the Tea Party movement disapprove of the job being done by GOP leaders while 39% approve. Republican leaders also get negative ratings from Republican-leaning independents: 55% disapprove compared with 36% who approve.

Democratic leaders in Congress get higher job ratings from their party’s base than do GOP leaders. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (65%) approve of their job performance while 25% disapprove, which is little changed in recent months.

Independents’ ratings of Democratic leaders have worsened since the early days of the current Congress – but have improved slightly since March. In February 2009, 41% of independents approved and 46% disapproved of the job being done by Democratic leaders. That dropped to 21% approval and 66% disapproval in March 2010. Today, the balance still tilts decidedly negative (28% approve, 59% disapprove).

Assessing Congressional Accomplishments

A plurality of the public (44%) says the current Congress has accomplished about the same amount as other recent Congresses. A third (33%) say it has accomplished less than usual and 18% say it has accomplished more than usual.

In June 2006, the public expressed more negative views of the accomplishments of Congress: 43% said that it had accomplished less than usual, while just 7% said it had accomplished more – less than half the current figure.

As expected, there are wide partisan differences in views of Congress’s productivity. Currently, 51% of Republicans say Congress has accomplished less than usual and 33% say it has accomplished about the same amount. About half of Democrats (52%) say the current Congress has achieved about the same as recent sessions while 26% say it has done more than usual. A plurality of independents (44%) say Congress has accomplished about the same amount as recent sessions; 35% say it has accomplished less.

Four years ago, when the Republican Party controlled Congress, most Democrats (59%) said it had accomplished less than usual. Notably, independents were much more critical of the output of Congress then than they are today. In June 2006, 48% said Congress had accomplished less than usual; 35% of independents say that today.

Among the third of the public as a whole who say the current Congress has accomplished less – a group that tilts heavily Republican and Republican-leaning independent – 49% say Democratic leaders are to blame for this, 16% say Republican leaders and 28% say both. In June 2006, most of those (59%) that said Congress had accomplished less – a group comprised largely of Democrats – mostly blamed Republican leaders

Democrats Still Lead on Most Traits

The Democratic Party continues to be seen by the public as the party more concerned about people like them (50% vs. 34%) and the party that can bring about changes the country needs (45% vs. 33%). While the Democrats’ advantages over the Republican Party on these questions are smaller than they were in the summer of 2009, they are little changed since February of this year.

Democrats continue to hold an edge when people are asked to choose which party selects better candidates for office (43% vs. 35%) and which governs in a more honest and ethical way (41% vs. 31%).

On the critical question of which party can better manage the federal government, Democrats and Republicans are about even (41% say Republicans, 37% say Democrats). In October 2006, Democrats held a 10-point advantage on this question: 44% vs. 34%. In July 1994, a few months before the GOP gained control of Congress, the Republican Party led as the party better able to manage the government (by 43% to 31%).

Currently, 40% of independents say the GOP can better manage the federal government compared with 29% who choose the Democratic Party. Four years ago, in October 2006, the balance of opinion among independents was reversed: 39% chose the Democrats and 29% chose the Republicans.

Republicans Want More Conservative Party

As has been the case since just after the 2008 election, most Republican and Republican-leaning voters (59%) say they want the party’s leaders to move in a more conservative direction; just 35% say they want the GOP leadership to follow a more moderate path.

Similarly, there has been little change in the opinions among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters about the ideological direction of the Democratic party: 53% say Democratic leaders should move in a more moderate direction while 37% say they want their leadership to pursue a more liberal course.

The differing views of Republican and Democratic voters are explained in part by the ideological composition of each party’s supporters. More than six-in-ten (62%) Republican and Republican-leaning voters call themselves conservative, and 78% of these voters want the party to move more in that direction. Two-thirds (67%) of moderate and liberal Republican and Republican-leaning voters support a more moderate approach, but this group constitutes a much smaller share of the overall Republican base (38% identify themselves as moderate or liberal while 62% say they are conservative).

A majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters describe themselves as moderate or conservative ideologically (59%); 39% describe themselves as liberal. Seven-in-ten moderate and conservative Democratic voters (70%) favor the party pursuing a more moderate agenda. Predictably, most liberal Democratic voters favor a more liberal course for the party (58%) over a moderate approach (28%). However, among those at the extreme of each party, liberal Democratic voters are less likely to say they want the Democratic party to move left (58%) than conservative Republican voters are to say they want the GOP to tack right (78%).
Republican and Republican-leaning voters who agree with the Tea Party movement are much more likely than other Republicans to think GOP leaders should move in a more conservative direction. Three-quarters (74%) say this; more than three times the number who favor a more moderate approach (23%). Other Republican voters are evenly divided about the party’s ideological direction: 48% of those who disagree with the Tea Party or who do not give an opinion of the movement support a moderate direction for the GOP, while 45% would like to see the party shift right.