The Simple Facts
Democratic President Obama's Job Approval
Congressional Job Approval
U.S. House of Representatives
Independents Who Caucus With Democrats 2
2016 Generic Congressional Vote
It is perfectly rational for a Democrat who doesn't approve of the job performance of Congress to want to vote for a Democrat in order to change control of Congress. It is perfectly rational for a Republican who approves of the job performance of Congress to want to vote for a Republican to retain control of Congress.
But, what do the at least one-third of likely voters who disapprove of the job that Congress is doing, yet favor Republican in a generic Congressional vote (20% of voters) or have no preference in a generic Congressional vote (12.7% of voters), not understand?
You could understand someone thinking that their particular Congressperson is unlike other members of that Congressperson's political party. But, that possibility goes out the window in a generic Congressional vote.
Seriously. This is a problem that can't be solved by defending the right to vote. This is a problem that can't be solved with easier to understand ballots, or more accurate vote tallying equipment. It can't be solved by reforming the caucus or primary process to elect political party nominees. It can't be solved by ending gerrymandering. It can't be solved multi-round or instant runoff voting.
This is a problem that wasn't foreseen by the Founders when they wrote the U.S. Constitution. Nobody worried about this happening when they wrote the Federalist papers to market the new constitution to the people who would have to approve it. The authors of the Federalist papers even naively thought that the simple expedient of majority voting on legislation by the legislature as a whole would prevent minority factions in Congress from securing legislation that favored minorities to the detriment of majorities.
Even more epically, the Founders did not foresee that electoral politics in the system that they created would primarily become contests between competing political parties that usually solidified two opposing coalitions of factions before elections were held that were stable for many decades at a time.
Is the problem that American voters today, with easy assess to every kind of media and Google, don't know that in Congress, which they are aware is doing such a miserable job, that the House and the Senate are both controlled by Republicans?
I'm sure that there are people who think that Congress is doing a miserable job who don't know that the House and the Senate are both controlled by Republicans.* After all, this has only been true for less than two years. For the four years before that, Democrats controlled the Senate while Republicans controlled the House, and for the two years before that, Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House.
But, it is also reasonable to believe that people who don't know that the Republicans currently control Congress make up a pretty small minority of people who actually vote in Congressional elections, because a political party that felt it needed to get this fact across could do so easily and cheaply with a straightforward advertising campaign. The fact that this source for the problem would imply an easy solution, together with the fact that this paradox is long standing and intractable, suggests that the answer is not so simple.
I honestly don't actually know what does lead to this paradox, although I have no doubt that it has been studied ad nauseam by political scientists.
One possibility is that it is the product of a number of rationalizations. Voters may believe that other members of the ruling party and not your own representative, is the reason for that failure of Congress to do its job well. But, again, that doesn't explain why the paradox is present even in the case of a generic partisan ballot.
Voters may blame the President for thwarting the ability of Congress to do its job well. Voters may feel that Congress is doing a bad job because it compromises with a President of another political party too often, and not that it is too partisan. After all, one of the best predictors of public mistrust of an occupation or institution is the extent to which it participates in negotiations, and mistrust and job disapproval go hand in hand. This would imply a need for change in party leadership, or primary challenges to put in place more partisan members of the same party, rather than a need to throw the bums out in favor of the other political party.
One fact that supports this hypothesis is that this is a problem that by and large does not afflict countries like the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Iceland, and Israel that have parliamentary systems that vest almost all executive and legislative political power in a single popularly elected legislative body whose elected leader runs the government as a prime minister. Somehow, in those simpler systems of undivided government, where all important compromises take place behind closed doors in ruling coalition cabinet meetings, the notion of "responsible government" somehow penetrates the heads of the average voter. If voters don't approve of how the ruling party or coalition is governing, the voters consistently vote that party out of power.
If necessary, in those countries, politicians form new alternative parties if both the existing loyal opposition and the ruling party are both equally unpalatable options in the eyes of the voting public, and often they succeed in that effort marshaling dissenting experienced politicians from existing parties as the core of the new party.
Any time there is divided government, between the two houses of Congress, or between the President and either house of Congress, responsibility for the state of the political process becomes diffuse and voters are much less inclined to punish incumbents when the political system enters a failure mode. Cognitive dissonance leads voters to strongly favor blaming the other guy's political party if there is any plausible rational arising from divided government for doing so, even in cases like this year's when Congress is completely controlled by Republicans, the public strongly disapproves of how Congress is doing its job, and the President of another political party has positive approval ratings.
At least, that's the theory. I'll have to try to find some literature to confirm and reject it.
* A Footnote On The Death Of The U.S. Senate Filibuster As A Binding Senate Rule
Strictly speaking, there have only been one time since 1979 (almost four decades ago) that either political party with filibuster proof control of the U.S. Senate (during which the same party also controlled the U.S. House and the Presidency), in the 111th Congress (2009-2011). This is what made it possible to pass Obamacare over strong Republican opposition.
In theory, in the absence of a filibuster-proof sixty vote majority, a U.S. Senate minority (usually made up mostly of members of the minority political party in the U.S. Senate) can prevent the U.S. Senate from taking final action on a matter indefinitely.
But, in substance, it is been possible to take action in the U.S. Senate by mere majority vote in the U.S. Senate since the lame duck portion of the 113th Congress in November of 2013. This is when the Senate Democrats exercised the "nuclear option." In other words, Senate Democrats with a Democratic Vice President presiding as President of the Senate, by a mere majority vote, dispensed with the sixty vote filibuster threshold for appointments of nominees other than U.S. Supreme Court justices (and several other anti-democratic U.S. Senate rules), without passing an amendment to the U.S. Senate rules by a two-thirds majority provided for by Senate rules which are never rewritten from scratch as they are in the U.S. House when it reorganizes with each new Congress, because the U.S. Senate is in continuous session and never replaces more than a third of its members at any one time.
President Obama (who was a U.S. Senator from Illinois before he was elected to be the President of the United States) accepted this as a legitimate tactic of U.S. Senate Democrats that was justified and made necessary by anti-Democratic Republican obstinance in violation of historic but informal Senate norms regarding the use of the filibuster.
No Article III court has ever held that any action taken by the U.S. Senate after it exercised the nuclear potion under the new filibuster rules was invalid, because the U.S. Senate has exclusive jurisdiction over its own internal parliamentary rules and disputes over the interpretations of rules are resolved by majority vote.
And, U.S. Senate Republicans effectively ratified the legitimacy of the nuclear option by leaving in place the changes to the filibuster adopted by Senate Democrats in that manner, when they took control of the chamber in January of 2015 following the 2014 mid-term election.
This political precedent effectively means that the remaining filibuster rules of the U.S. Senate and other U.S. Senate procedures protecting minority rights in the U.S. Senate are now really no more than a formalized courtesy afforded to the U.S. Senate minority by the political party in control of the U.S. Senate. This is because the legitimacy of the nuclear option to change the filibuster rules of the U.S. Senate have now been ratified by all players in the political process. So, filibuster rules and other procedural rights afforded to minorities in the U.S. Senate can now be changed at any time if the majority's desire to pass legislation or approve a U.S. Supreme Court nominee is sufficiently intense.