We don’t yet know who will replace retiring Paul Ryan as House speaker or when.
What we can say, though, is that whoever wants the job should be prepared to see his or her popularity tank. The American public has a tendency to turn on whomever is elected to the post.
Take Ryan for example. Ryan’s net favorability (favorable - unfavorable rating) in a recent Quinnipiac University poll stood at -23 percentage points. That was actually below President Donald Trump’s rating in the same survey of -22 percentage points. And remember, Trump is the most unpopular president in recorded history at this point in an administration.
Other surveys over the last six months have bounced around a little, though they’ve all shown Ryan with more people who dislike him than like him.
That’s quite a change from when Ryan took the job back in late 2015. The first Quinnipiac survey taken after Ryan became speaker actually found more people liked him than disliked him. His net favorability in that survey +9 percentage points.
You might look at that decline and think that Ryan, in particular, did something really wrong. The truth is, though, that he’s just followed the path that other recent speakers also took.
There may not have been a speaker who had a more miserable time than John Boehner. He had to put up with the Freedom Caucus and a Democratic president. He got rewarded for that by garnering an astonishingly low -32 percentage points net favorability rating in a Selzer & Company poll taken just before he announced he was leaving office in late 2015. He actually was liked by more Americans than disliked when entered office in January 2011, according to GfK Research.
And if you think this is just about Republicans becoming unpopular, guess again. Nancy Pelosi entered the speaker’s office in 2007 better liked than disliked in a CBS News poll. By the time the 2010 midterms rolled around, when Democrats were swamped, her net favorability dropped 30 percentage points.
The list goes on from there. Dennis Hastert’s popularity declined. Newt Gingrich’s went downward. Even Democrat Tom Foley, who sought collaboration with Republicans, saw his net favorability rating drop by double-digits. He was then voted out of office by his constituents during the Republican Revolution of 1994.
Now it does seem that the drops in popularity for the most recent speakers have been greater than the three prior to them. Foley, Gingrich and Hastert saw drops in the low double digits compared to the 30-plus-point drops of Boehner, Pelosi and Ryan. The larger, more recent drops could have to do with the fact that trust in government and congressional approval ratings have remained at or near low levels over the past decade. As the highest-ranking member of Congress, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a speaker becomes less popular as he or she becomes more closely associated with what is seen as a dysfunctional government.
Indeed, 1986 was the last time a speaker announced he or she was stepping down during a time when more people approved than disapproved of Congress and more than 40% of Americans trusted the federal government always or most of the time. In that term, then-Speaker Tip O’Neill left office with 67% (!) of Americans saying they thought O’Neill did an excellent or good job as speaker in a Harris poll. Just 23% said he did a fair or poor job.
With congressional approval and trust in government numbers still in the toilet, it’s going to be very difficult for the next speaker to be anywhere near as popular as O’Neill.