What surveys say about Mike Johnson and the House's long speaker battle

David MontgomerySenior data journalist
Carl BialikU.S. Politics Editor and Vice President of Data Science
October 25, 2023, 10:46 PM GMT+0

The U.S. House of Representatives elected Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as the chamber's new speaker Wednesday, following weeks of deadlock.

Johnson's election came after prior House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was removed from office on October 3, and after several better-known Republicans tried and failed to win a majority.

Here is what surveys conducted by the Economist and YouGov show about how Americans feel about Johnson and the just-concluded Speaker battle:

Johnson didn't have a major public profile

In the days before his election, Johnson had barely any support from Republican-leaning Americans.

In the latest Economist/YouGov poll, conducted immediately before Johnson's election, Johnson was picked by 1% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents as the candidate they most wanted as the next speaker, from a lengthy list.

Rep. Jim Jordan, a recent speaker nominee, led the field with 23%. Donald Trump was in second with 15% and previous Speaker McCarthy in third with 6%. Two in five (40%) named no one.

Republicans are optimistic about Johnson

The immediate reaction to Johnson's election Wednesday was a shrug: 40% of Americans aren't sure whether they approve of it, according to polling conducted by YouGov in the hours after his election.

But many Republicans say they approve of Johnson's election — for some perhaps because it meant that any Republican managed to get elected: 54% approve either strongly or somewhat, against just 8% disapproving.

The instant reaction on the Democratic side was more negative, with 27% approval and 39% disapproval. Among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, more than one-third of each group said they aren't sure whether they approve of Johnson's election.

More U.S. adults expect Johnson to be a speaker who sticks to his principles, no matter what, than think he will compromise to get things done. But Republicans are almost evenly divided. Most people don't know what to expect of him.

The Speaker deadlock was frustrating Americans

By an overwhelming margin, Americans felt the House's failure to elect a speaker for more than three weeks was bad for the country.

Just before Johnson's Wednesday election, more Republicans (59%) said they would prefer having a functioning government even with a speaker they don’t like, rather than having no speaker and limiting the government’s functioning (41%). The share of Independents and Democrats who said the same is even larger.

A growing majority of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — were also saying that not having a speaker of the House was hurting the U.S. government’s ability to function.

Republicans were becoming more open to compromise

After McCarthy's ouster, there was a clear preference among Republicans in the populace that the next speaker should be someone who sticks to their principles, in contrast to a speaker who compromises to get things done. Republicans backed a principled speaker over a compromising speaker 49% to 35% in early October; the lead grew to 54% to 32% in mid-October.

But the latest Economist/YouGov survey found a dramatic shift as the House approached three weeks without a speaker. From October 21 - 24, Republicans said they preferred a speaker who compromises over one who always sticks to their principles, 44% to 40%.

With this shift, Republicans joined Democrats and Independents; both groups had consistently expressed a clear preference for a speaker who compromises.

Many Republicans were ready for their House caucus to fall in line

Traditionally, House speakers were elected in a straightforward process: The majority party would meet in a closed caucus and choose a nominee. Then all members of the party would vote for their party's nominee on the floor, even if they would have preferred someone else.

That broke down this month, as small but decisive groups of Republican representatives refused to vote for a succession of caucus nominees. Since Republicans only had a slight majority, that resulted in a series of votes where no candidate got the required majority.

In the days before Johnson broke the deadlock and got elected with unanimous Republican support, Republicans in the populace expressed a slight preference toward their representatives falling in line. By 38% to 33%, Republicans said they preferred that House members should vote for the speaker candidate supported by the majority of their colleagues, even if they disagree with that choice, rather than that they should not vote for their party's choice.

That was in contrast to non-Republicans. Both Democrats (43% to 23%) and Independents (41% to 18%) said representatives should not vote the party line for speaker candidates they disagree with.

Regrets, they had a few

When McCarthy was booted as House speaker in early October, Republicans were evenly split on whether they approved.

By this week, Republican sentiment had shifted. By a margin of 20 percentage points, Republicans disapproved of McCarthy’s ouster. One-quarter (25%) of Republicans strongly or somewhat approved of his ouster and 45% disapproved.

In disarray

Earlier this month, Americans were clear — by a 46% to 15% margin — that the Democratic Party was more unified than the Republican Party. Not only did Democrats feel that way, but so did Independents. The only exception was Republicans, who loyally said Democrats were more in disarray, by 34% to 28%.

That changed as the speaker vacancy stretched on.. This week's poll found that 35% of Republicans said Democrats were more united, compared to 32% who said the GOP was more united.

The latest Economist/YouGov poll found that Democrats were 20 points more likely than Republicans to have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of their party members in Congress. The gap was just 7 points in the poll two weeks earlier.

— Taylor Orth contributed to this article

October 25, 2023 YouGov poll: This survey was conducted using a nationally representative sample of 1,938 U.S. adults interviewed online. 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.

October 21 - 24, 2023 Economist/YouGov poll: This poll was conducted 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 (Win McNamee)