The electoral ramifications of the shutdown are far from clear

October 14, 2013

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that even more Americans disapprove of how the Republicans are handling the budget negotiations.  This, combined with evidence that the GOP’s favorability has dropped, suggests that the Republicans are already in trouble for 2014 and maybe beyond.  In the New York Times, Jeremy Peters suggests that the Republicans’ hopes of a Senate majority are fading.  In the New Republic, John Judis goes even further, suggesting that the Republicans are in their “last days” and “death throes” and that the party could be “cripple(d)” for “not just in the 2014 and 2016 elections, but for decades to come.”

Whoa.  This is all too much, too soon.  Let’s take a broader look at public opinion and some recent history:

1) There are warning signs for Obama. First, it isn’t like the public approves of his handling of the budget negotiations either — in the new Post/ABC poll 53 percent disapprove, a slight but not statistically significant increase from two weeks ago.  Second, Gallup’s tracking polls suggest that his overall approval rating has declined.  Rasmussen finds the same thing.  (And don’t start in about Gallup’s accuracy in the presidential election; there is nothing wrong with their presidential approval numbers.)  I am the last person to put much stock in a single poll.  But we have two polls showing the same trend — on top of a third warning sign: perhaps the best predictor of presidential approval, evaluations of the economy, are in freefall.  I am happy to state that we need more polling to identify whether there is any trend in presidential approval.  But all of these pieces of data deserve more attention than they are getting.

2) It may not matter that the public disapproves of Republicans more than Obama.  One rejoinder to the above is that it only matters who the public blames the most.  Ezra Klein writes:

But a two-party political system with first-past-the-post elections is a zero-sum affair.

That’s true.  But it matters a lot that low approval of Republicans is driven mostly by the well-documented split among RepublicansThanks to Scott Clement of the Post’s polling unit, I got some more detailed information about how approval breaks down among party lines.  Assuming that the fraction of independents who lean Republican is what Gallup’s data suggests, and assuming that Republican-leaning independents have attitudes similar to Republicans (a decent assumption), the Post’s numbers suggest this: if Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in the electorate approved of congressional Republicans as much as Democrats approve of Obama (71% do), congressional Republicans would be no less popular than congressional Democrats are.

Why does this matter?  Because the politics of these approval numbers do not suggest that the GOP’s disadvantage would redound to the Democrat’s advantage in the midterm election in any clear zero-sum fashion.  As Lynn Vavreck and I noted in our piece for CNN, party identification predicts the vote in congressional elections very well.  The Republicans who don’t approve of the GOP’s handling of the budget negotiations aren’t likely to go vote for a Democrat.

3) This all may blow over well before the election.

The parameters of a deal are far from certain.  The Senate negotiation seems like it might require lawmakers to revisit appropriations and the debt ceiling in the beginning of 2014.  But if there is an accord — and if #1 and 2 are true then both parties have some incentive to produce one — then by November 2014 this may all seem like distant history.  Nate Silver summarized this nicely (with a nice shout-out to The Gamble):

Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public’s interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won’t turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.

And Nate Cohn also reminds us that polls can shift.  In general, if commentators make any consistent mistake, it is overestimating the importance of the events happening now.

4) The fundamentals of the midterm don’t really advantage either party very much.

Here is what Lynn and I said at CNN:

Heading into 2014, a set of cross-currents seems likely to maintain this partisan balance. Republicans have more seats to defend in the House, and history shows that the larger a party’s majority, the more seats the party is likely to lose. On top of that, the dismal marks that Americans give to Congress tend to hurt the majority party in the House most.

But the Democrats face their own challenges. Two key fundamentals in both presidential and midterm elections are the economy and presidential approval. At the moment, the economy is growing only slowly, and approval of Obama has dropped 8 points since January. Both factors could end up hurting congressional Democrats.

Another fundamental of congressional elections is the quality of the candidates being recruited.  Democratic candidate recruitment has not gone so well that election handicappers give them an edge in many swing districts.  Nate Cohn summarizes this nicely.  And while the shift in the generic ballot is certainly good news for Democrats, political scientists Joseph Bafumi, Robert Erikson, and Christopher Wlezien have shown that during the election year the generic ballot tends to trend in the opposite direction as the president’s party.  This suggests that Democrats will lose ground in generic ballot polling during 2014.  So what we’re left with is the potential for either party to make small gains, but less potential for either party to make major gains.  Certainly I cannot confidently predict that the Democrats will gain the majority.

5) The 1995-96 shutdown didn’t necessarily help Clinton that much. 

The conventional wisdom is that the shutdown helped Clinton in the 1996 election.  I think that view has been debunked or at least substantially qualified by Sean Trende, Harry Enten, and Nate Cohn.  I’ll show my graph of Clinton approval from my post three years ago (and see also Nate Silver):


Taken together, the two shutdowns left Clinton approval where it was when the first shutdown began.  The subsequent increase in approval isn’t evident until weeks after the last shutdown, thanks to a gap in the polling, so it isn’t clear the shutdown had anything to do with it.  In short, there is a lot of mythology about the Clinton-era shutdown, but the actual evidence is far more mixed.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this shutdown has been great for the GOP.  It hasn’t.  They may even think it’s been worse for them than I do! If that spurs them to make concessions so the government can reopen and we avoid possible default, I think that’s a good outcome, policy-wise.

But in the meantime, it seems to me that the prevailing commentary has been too quick to suggest that the GOP will suffer major consequences in the eyes of voters — now, in 2014, and beyond.   My shake of the magic 8-ball says “reply hazy.”

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Erik Voeten | October 14, 2013