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Rhoads: What Do Voters Really Know?



By Mark Rhoads – Congressman Clay welcomes Export-Import Bank Chairman

In November of 2008 2000, some analysts were surprised by a University of Michigan survey that seemed to find that a majority of voters thought that Republicans controlled both houses of Congress when in fact Democrats had held the majority in both houses for the previous two years.

So why did people think Republicans had the majority when it was not true?  Apparently many people thought that Congress must be controlled by the same party as the president and they were pretty sure that President George W. Bush was labeled as a Republican.

Most people who read political blogs like this one, have a high political IQ and they usually know which party controls each house in Congress and the state legislature.

But you might be surprised to find out how many of your neighbors do not know something as basic as the party affiliation of their own member of Congress.  

Suppose your neighbor said, "I strongly disapprove of the job Congress is doing but my Congressman is different."  Why?  "Well Congressman Smith gave a flag that flew over the Capitol to my son's Cub Scout troop.  He sends me his newsletter and he spoke at our town's Memorial Day ceremony. His staff helped Aunt Jane get her social security disability check.  He is a great guy."  

But is Congressman Smith a Republican or a Democrat?  Your neighbor is not sure.  What difference does it make in how Congress works which party has the committee chairs or the gavel on the floor?  Your neighbor is not sure about that either.  

I have always been skeptical when political science professors claim that many people intend to vote for divided government. The reason is that I never met a real-life voter who says "I intend to vote for divided government today because I want one party to control Congress and the other party to control the White House."  

If you are a precinct committeeman in downstate Illinois or a precinct captain in Cook County, try a survey of voters in your precinct to find out if they really know for sure the party ID of their own member of the U.S. House.  I think you might be surprised to find out how little voters really know. 


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  1. You are aware that Republicans did, in fact, control both houses of Congress from 1994-2000, aren’t you? Newt Gingrich was speaker 1995-1999 and followed up by Hastert. Republicans controlled the Senate outright through 2000, held a tie until a defection, and took control again in 2002 and they controlled both houses through 2006. I’m not sure where you got that Democrats controlled the Congress 1998-2000.

  2. Thank you for your careful correction. I am sorry for my typo mistake at the top that should have read 2008 and not 2000. The survey was in 2008 at the end of the second term of President George W. Bush and not in 2000. On that November election day, in fact Democrats had won control of both houses two years before in 2006 that resulted in the election of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. Republicans did not re-gain the majority in the House again until after the reapportionment of 2000 and did not re-gain the Senate again until just two years ago in 2014. So on Election day in November 2008, President Bush was still the outgoing incumbent but most people thought that Republicans controlled the House when in fact Nancy Pelosi had been the Speaker for the previous 24 months and Harry Reid was presiding officer of the Senate for the previous 24 months. The survey found that a majority of voters did not understand this.