The latest polling on the Colorado Senate race was released on Thursday from Quinnipiac University, and while the head-to-head matchups normally get the headlines, we've always looked more closely at approval ratings as a stronger barometer of election outcomes. The head-to-head matchups are fun to note, but they are often little more than snapshots of support for "generic opposition Party" versus the incumbent; something is obviously off when Republican Randy Baumgardner, who has raised as much money for his campaign as you have, appears to be within striking distance of incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.
According to Quinnipiac, 45% of Colorado voters approve of the job Udall is doing in the Senate, while 41% disapprove. On a scale of 1-100, that doesn't look very good. But we can't really use that scale because the playing field for federal candidates is oddly skewed. With approval ratings for Congress in general at historic lows of around 10%, you could make the argument that a 45% approval rating is actually pretty good.
In a recent national Gallup poll, only 17% of registered voters (also a record low) say that most members of Congress deserve re-election:
[V]oters see their own U.S. representative in the same way that they see most other members of Congress — as not deserving re-election.
But here in Colorado, voters are split 42-42 on whether or not Sen. Udall deserves to be re-elected. The Gallup poll was asking about members of the House of Representatives, but the word "Congress" has traditionally been assigned to include both chambers in Washington D.C. Do voters think more highly in general of their U.S. Senators than their House members? Do more people assume the word "Congress" to apply only to the House, and not the Senate?
Whatever the dynamic at play here, the historic unpopularity of Congress has to be a major factor when you try to measure the approval ratings of a particular U.S. Senator — you can't currently take any numbers at face value without considering that inherent dislike of the entire legislative body. This shows up when you look at approval ratings around the country for incumbents facing re-election in 2014. Here's a sampling of the most current available numbers for a handful of Democratic incumbents running for re-election:
Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK): 43-44
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL): 46-40
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA): 46-43
Could Udall's approval ratings be better? Sure…but how much better could they realistically get at a time when Congress is so disliked?