The shutdown probably won’t matter in the 2014 election. It definitely won’t matter in 2016.

October 17, 2013

There's a tendency in non-election years for political pundits to project the consequences of big political events onto the next election, as if this is off-season and a bad week for the Republican Party is the equivalent of an MCL tear for a linebacker. This was in full force Wednesday night:

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Meanwhile, at the National Journal, Michael Hirsh has an analysis headlined, "Hillary Clinton, Welcome to the White House."

I'll take the other side of this bet: The events of these last three weeks will have no effect on the 2016 elections. They probably won't even matter much in the 2014 midterm elections.

First, basically nothing matters in elections. Once you account for partisanship, the economy, presidential approval and incumbency, there's very little vote left to swing. The main mistake the political class makes about elections is vastly overstating their volatility. But partisan preferences are overwhelmingly stable, and the voters who don't have strong preferences tend to be pretty checked out of day-to-day political events.

Second, almost nothing a politician did more than a few months ago ever matters in elections. Thrush's Iraq analogy is, I think, flawed for exactly that reason: The Iraq War was still going on in 2008! It was mattering then. The shutdown, however, ended Wednesday night.The debt ceiling wasn't breached. Six months from now this will all seem like a bad dream. Three years from now it's going to be completely irrelevant.

Third, we don't know the context of 2014 or 2016. Is the Affordable Care Act a widely acknowledged disaster? If so, then these last few weeks will be easier for Republicans to spin. Did Rep. Paul Ryan manage to strike a big budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray? If so, then his "no" vote Wednesday night won't matter in the least.

Finally, much of the GOP's slide in the polls was due to Republican voters growing disgusted with their own representatives. As the Monkey Cage's John Sides wrote, the polls showed that "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."

It's bad for congressional Republicans to be losing the support of Republican voters. But it won't matter in a major election. Elections are basically extended reminders to partisans about why they hate the other party. By the end, most everyone heads back to their respective corners.

The interesting question for 2014 isn't these last three weeks but these next 12 months. That is to say, do Republicans try this again at some point closer to the actual election?

I doubt it. And so long as they stay away from this kind of brinksmanship going forward they probably wrapped this episode up early enough that it won't be worth much a year from now.

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Neil Irwin | October 17, 2013