Filibuster? Nuclear option? Most people don’t care.

November 22, 2013

Thursday was a landmark day in political Washington. The Senate changed its rules on filibusters for the first time in its history -- opening a potential Pandora's Box that may very well lead to a future of majority-only votes in the world's greatest deliberative body. The implications for the Senate's traditions as well as how it functions day-to-day are hard to overstate.

And yet, for the world outside Washington, invoking the "nuclear option" and the changing of filibuster rules are non-happenings -- moments that barely register and almost certainly will have zero impact on voters' choices in the coming midterm elections.

Polling, which is somewhat scarce on the subject, tells the story of just how little people know about the filibuster. Check out this chart from a Pew:

Image courtesy of Pew
Image courtesy of Pew

So, roughly one in four people knew that 60 votes were needed to break a filibuster. The largest group -- almost four in 10 -- didn't know enough to even offer a guesstimate on how many votes were needed to break a filibuster. Good times.

In early 2011, Pew did another poll in which they asked people how much they had heard about "Democratic proposals to change the Senate's filibuster rule." (The poll was taken in the midst of a broad-scale effort by Senate Democrats to change filibuster rules.) Roughly half of respondents said they had heard "nothing at all" about the proposals, while just 14 percent said they had heard a lot. And that was at a moment when the filibuster -- and the attempts to reform it -- were getting tons (relatively speaking) of news coverage.

All of the above is not to say that no one cares or knows about the filibuster -- particularly as it relates to judicial nominees. The bases of both parties are heavily invested in it, and, for them, Thursday was a big day. Harry Reid became a liberal hero for being the one who finally pushed the button; he became a conservative villain for being the one who finally pushed the button. In a midterm election where motivating your base is critical, the nuclear option could matter -- except that the energy it creates in both bases is likely to cancel itself out.

But, in terms of the on-again, off-again voters who tend to decide elections -- the issue is simply not one that animates or, to be frank, interests them in any meaningful way. So, yes, Thursday's vote will almost certainly forever change the way the Senate and, by extension, political Washington works. But, if you think that the average person is following the happenings in Washington and/or is at all affected by them, you'd be wrong.

Fixbits:

Former governor Charlie Crist (D) leads Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) by seven points in a new poll.

Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) checked into rehab.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was initially unable to enroll in health care on D.C.'s exchange Web site.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed a fried Twinkie summit meeting with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Christie is now head of the RGA.

House Budget Chairman Paul  Ryan (R-Wis.) endorsed Ben Sasse in the Nebraska Senate race.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is set to meet with Donald Trump Friday.

Must-reads: 

"Senate’s filibuster rule change should help Obama achieve key second-term priorities" -- Zachary A. Goldfarb, Washington Post

"Partisan Fever in Senate Likely to Rise" -- Jonathan Weisman, New York Times

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