The House without a speaker: More Americans would prefer a leader they disagree with

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
October 04, 2023, 8:35 PM GMT+0

Recent and past YouGov polling — conducted leading up to and just after the removal of Republican Kevin McCarthy as House speaker on Tuesday — sheds light on what Americans think of his tenure, his expulsion, and the Republicans who helped oust him. It also provides insights into Americans' views of Congress, of its Democratic and Republican members, and the recently averted government shutdown.

McCarthy's ouster

More Americans strongly or somewhat approve (46%) than strongly or somewhat disapprove (28%) of the House of Representatives passing a resolution to remove McCarthy as speaker, according to polling conducted by YouGov the day after his ouster. Republicans are more likely to approve than disapprove of his removal, though by a slightly narrower margin (44% vs. 34%).

About half of Americans (47%) believe that the eight Republicans in Congress who voted to remove McCarthy were driven more by a desire to seek power for themselves than by serious concerns they have about McCarthy; only 28% said the reverse. Republicans also are slightly more likely to say the vote against McCarthy by eight Republicans was more of a power grab than driven by serious concerns (41% vs. 37%).

With no clear frontrunner to replace McCarthy, the House is temporarily without a speaker. Americans are slightly more likely to say they'd prefer to have a speaker, even if it's one they disagree with politically (34%), than to have no speaker at all (29%).

McCarthy's tenure as speaker

The latest Economist/YouGov poll — which concluded fielding just before McCarthy's ouster — sheds more light on this major upheaval in Congress, and adds to nine months of polling during McCarthy's tenure that shows how views of him and of Congress have evolved.

McCarthy was popular with at least half of Republicans for most of his tenure, though less popular at the end than when he first became speaker. The latest survey finds that 56% of Republicans strongly or somewhat approve of his handling of the job and 49% hold a very or somewhat favorable opinion of him. Support for McCarthy since the start of his speakership declined — among Americans overall as well as among Democrats and Republicans — from peaks in April and May.

Many Republicans saw weaknesses in McCarthy: Only 42% strongly or somewhat approved of how he handled the recent risk of a government shutdown. Just 30% of Americans overall approved of his handling of it.

When McCarthy was narrowly elected speaker in January, Republicans approved of his win by 59% to 21%. At the same time, however, they also held more favorable (39%) than unfavorable views (33%) of "Republicans who opposed Kevin McCarthy in the election for Speaker of the House."

Congress and the political parties

Americans are more likely to view Democrats in Congress favorably than to hold positive views of Republicans in Congress, and the gap has grown. The difference in views about Democrats and Republicans in Congress is the largest it has been since the start of this year: 41% have a very or somewhat favorable view of congressional Democrats compared to 33% for congressional Republicans, an 8-percentage-point gap.

As for Congress's overall standing among Americans, the last week did little to improve matters. Just 14% of Americans strongly or somewhat approve of how Congress is handling its job — including a meager 3% who strongly approve; 62% strongly or somewhat disapprove. Democrats (20%) are somewhat more likely than Republicans (13%) and Independents (10%) to approve. Republican and Democratic approval of how Congress is doing its job has declined by more than half since their 2023 peaks, in May.

A shutdown averted

Most Americans are glad to see a government shutdown temporarily averted. By a margin of 56% to 21%, Americans approve of Congress avoiding a shutdown. Democrats approve by 71% to 12%, and Republicans and Independents also are more likely to approve than to disapprove, though by smaller margins.

Americans are more likely than not to think key players handled the shutdown poorly. More people strongly or somewhat disapprove than strongly or somewhat approve of how the shutdown risk was handled by each of the political leaders involved: President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and McCarthy.

Many believe that shutdowns are becoming a fixture of American politics: 54% say shutdowns will eventually become part of normal politics, while just 19% say they will be unusual. At least half of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans agree. The share who believe shutdowns will become normalized has increased by 9 points since we last asked the question in February 2019 — just after the longest-ever shutdown ended and a subsequent potential shutdown was averted.

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

Daily Questions: This Daily Questions survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,913 U.S. adults interviewed online on October 4, 2023. The samples were weighted to be representative of the U.S. population, based on gender, age, race, education, U.S. census region, and political party.

Economist/YouGov poll: This poll was conducted on September 30 - October 3, 2023, among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

Image: Getty (Anna Moneymaker)