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Parsing the Polls on Congress and Corruption

The plea agreement announced Monday involving a former top aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has again brought the issue of congressional corruption into the public eye.

Ney, of course, is tied up in the Jack Abramoff scandal, which continues to dominate much of the chatter in official Washington as rumors fly that other Republican lawmakers and aides could be implicated.

On the other side of the aisle, two potential corruption cases involving Democrats are also in the headlines.

A Kentucky businessman pleaded guilty last week to attempting to bribe Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.), prompting House Democrats to urge an ethics probe of the lawmaker. Meanwhile, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) faces questions regarding his personal finances, leading him to step down from his post as ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.

Democrats insist that the "culture of corruption" they say pervades Republican-controlled Washington will be a major factor when voters head to the polls in the fall. Republicans retort that the problems of Jefferson and Mollohan hamstring Democrats' efforts to turn ethics into a partisan issue.

Who's right? Let's parse the polls.

The most relevant data in our attempt to cut through the spin comes from a USA Today/Gallup poll in the field at the end of last month.

The two most interesting questions and responses came when voters were asked whether they believe their member of Congress is corrupt and then whether members of Congress generally are corrupt.

On the first question, 22 percent said they believe their member of Congress was corrupt, while 67 percent disagreed. Those numbers mirrored a January USA Today/Gallup poll where 22 percent said their lawmaker was corrupt while 68 percent held the opposite view.

On the second question, however, the results were drastically different. Forty-seven percent of the sample said most members of Congress were corrupt, slightly edging out the 46 percent who said they were not corrupt. Asked the same question in January, 38 percent said most members of Congress were corrupt compared with 55 percent who said they were not.

As an added bonus for polling aficionados, Gallup also included the results from the same questions asked in late October 1994 -- just weeks before the tidal-wave election that swept Republicans into the majority in the House and Senate. At that time, 27 percent thought their own member of Congress was corrupt, while 65 percent said they believe their member wasn't corrupt. In that 1994 survey, 50 percent said they thought members of Congress generally were corrupt while 44 percent thought they were not.

Not surprisingly, these results can be read in two entirely different ways. On the one hand, voters by and large believe that their own member of Congress is clean -- a data point that backs up a major pillar of Republican rhetoric about the potential impact of the corruption issue on the election. Sure, voters don't approve of the conduct of ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), but they don't let their feelings on corruption generally color their impression of their own representative.

On the other hand, if voters believe the institution of Congress is fundamentally broken in regards to ethics, they are likely to punish the party in control of the levers of power. The numbers cited above are not at all dissimilar to what they were in 1994 when Republicans successfully nationalized the election around the idea that the Democratic majorities had grown disconnected and ineffective. That year, part of the GOP strategy was to remind voters about the House bank scandal and a stamp scandal involving the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee as symbolic of the corruption that had infiltrated the Capitol building (even though Republican members had also been implicated in the bank scandal).

How urgently do Americans want something done about corruption in Washington? Recent polling offers contradictory answers to that question.

In the USA/Today Gallup survey, 83 percent said "corruption in Congress" was either a very (39 percent) or somewhat (44 percent) serious issue. Only 17 percent said it was not too serious (15 percent) or not serious at all (2 percent.)

Probing further, the poll asked respondents about their views on how Congress overall should clean up corruption among its members. Again, the results were similar. Sixty-four percent thought it should either be a "top" priority (15 percent) or a "high" priority (49 percent); 31 percent said it should not be a high priority and four percent said it was "not important."

Contrast that with the responses by voters when asked an open-ended question about the biggest problems facing the country. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in early May found that "ethics in Washington" was the seventh-highest priority among voters -- behind things like the war in Iraq, terrorism, gas prices, health care and immigration. Ethics and corruption didn't crack the top nine in a CBS News poll in the field last last month, and it garnered just four percent support (good for eighth place) in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in late April.

With so much contrasting data can any hard and fast conclusions be drawn? In short, no. But the polling does point to some general trends. Most notably, corruption -- at this point -- does not appear to offer Democrats the silver bullet to end Republican majorities in the House and Senate. While voters view it as an important issue, it does not appear yet to be an issue that will decide their vote on Election Day. Kitchen table concerns and the ongoing conflict in Iraq appear to be bigger motivators now.

The waters of congressional corruption may have been muddied by news reports regarding Reps. Jefferson and Mollohan, but Republicans cannot assume that the issue does not carry considerably more danger for their party than the Democrats. If voters head to the polls convinced that Congress generally needs to be sent a message that corruption is intolerable, it is the Republicans who will bear the brunt of that anger. Much may depend on what is unearthed in the continuing probe of the Abramoff scandal.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 10, 2006; 10:05 AM ET
Categories:  House , Parsing the Polls  
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