How will Americans respond to the shutdown? A guide from 1995.

October 2, 2013

Nobody knows exactly how Tuesday's government shutdown will play out in the court of public opinion, but the latest polling and the famous 1995-96 shutdowns offer some helpful clues on how Americans may react to the current fiasco.

1. Republicans lost the 1995 shutdown, but they were losing before it began


Both Gingrich and Dole were already losing popularity before the 1995 government shutdowns began. Greg Gibson, File/Associated Press

Common lore is that Republicans lost big in the 1995 shutdown, but polls show the party was set to be a loser going into the fight. At the end of shutdown No. 1, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) disapproved of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Nov. 19, up from 50 percent in June and just 37 percent in January. After the 21-day shutdown ended in January 1996, Gingrich's negative ratings eased to 61 percent, still 24 points higher than a year earlier.

Then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the eventual Republican presidential nominee in 1996, lost significant ground in the fall and through the two shutdowns. In July 1995, only two points separated Clinton and Dole in a 1996 match-up among registered voters, but that grew to eight points by early November and to 16 points at the end of the second shutdown. Clinton's vote percentage didn't change much, but Dole's dropped by 10 points. Dole's approval rating dropped from 60 percent in March 1995 to 45 percent after shutdown No. 1 and 38 percent after shutdown No. 2.

By contrast, President Clinton's approval rating was positive and stable during the two shutdowns, with his approval ranging between 51 and 54 percent in Post-ABC polls spanning those months.

The shutdown laid the groundwork for Clinton's 1996 win over Dole, but the incumbent also capitalized on an improving economy. Congressional Republicans also decided to cooperate with Clinton in passing popular welfare reform, which helped save their House and Senate majorities, but deprived Dole of one of his best issues against the president.

(For a rundown on how every one of the past 17 government shutdowns played out, see Dylan Matthews indispensable post on Wonkblog.)

2. Obama is more popular than Republicans, but no one is beloved

Americans' reactions to the budget showdown will be viewed through the lens of their current attitudes, and right now they are not very happy with anybody. Going into the current shutdown, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found 41 percent approve of how Obama is handling budget negotiations, 34 percent approve of congressional Democrats and 26 percent approve of congressional Republicans.

Republicans are also seen as more stubborn. In a separate Post-ABC poll earlier this month, nearly two-thirds said Republicans are doing "too little" to compromise with Obama on important issues, compared with 49 percent who said this of Obama. This helps explain why two of three polls in recent weeks found more people saying Republicans would be blamed for a shutdown. Both of those numbers may go up after the the current battle is over, which is bad news for both parties.

3. In 1995 few felt personal impact of shutdown

This spring many predicted across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration would cause public uproar, but it never happened and the cuts remained in place. Most people still oppose the cuts and as many as a third said they felt personal impact, but President Obama and Congress have not felt overwhelming pressure to restore spending levels.

The impact of a government shutdown will be sharper, with 800,000 workers set to be furloughed. But if 1995 experience is any guide, a relatively small share of the public will feel direct impact. Just 12 percent in Post-ABC polls during and after the shutdowns said they were personally inconvenienced, with between 4 and 6 percent saying it was a major inconvenience.

Peyton M. Craighill and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.

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