Friday, October 4, 2013

SHUTDOWN 2013: A Close Look At Public Opinion Towards The President, The Parties, Congress, and More

Congress, the President, Democrats, Republicans...EVERYONE was better liked by the public during the 1995 government shutdown. New polling indicates Americans are more short-tempered than they wee 18 years ago.

We've been here before.

At least eighteen times since 1976, according to Wikipedia. In fact, George W. Bush has the praiseworthy distinction of being the only President since Gerald Ford to avoid a government shutdown during his time in office. 

But most of those shutdowns garnered light interest from public opinion pollsters, scant attention from the political press, and were generally far less glamorous than the one that took place between the Republican Congress and Democratic President in the 1990s, and the one happening now.

There's been a wealth of excellent articles written over the last week by TNR's Nate Cohn, Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics, and Harry Enten of The Guardian, regarding the polling differences between the two shutdowns. Enten blew a hole in the mythology surrounding the '95 stalemate, suggesting the 1996 election results were more the consequence of economic fundamentals than the budget showdown. Cohn piggy-backed off this days later, arguing that the GOP's hold on the House of Representatives is unlikely to change in light of events following '95. Trende set out to distinguish the tactics and goals of the '95 battle with today's.

This post intends to dive further into the data points driving these three mens' pieces, with a focus on the comparison of public blame then and now, Presidential and Congressional approval, generic Congressional ballot polling, and more.


Enten noted in The Guardian the marked difference in the level of blame the public placed on the political parties in '95 and now. Sure, Republicans are again on the receiving end of most of the finger pointing, but not to the extent they once were.

In fact, the Republicans most favorable data point out of shutdown polling to date comes from a week-old Pew Research survey finding American adults would blame Republicans in Congress only slightly more than the Obama Administration in the event of an actual shutdown.

If the federal government shuts down because Republicans and the Obama Administration can't agree on a budget, who do you think would be more to blame? (September 19-22, 2013, MoE +/- 3.7%)
  • Republicans  -  39%
  • Democrats  -  36%
  • Both Equally  -   17%
  • Don't know/Other  -  8%

If public opinion data regarding blame for the current shutdown stopped at the Pew Research poll, well, then the Republicans wouldn't seem to be freaking out so much right now, would they? But a few more pollsters have weighed in since Pew, and they find larger pluralities of Americans holding Republicans responsible for the gridlock:

The Global Strategy Group Poll listed Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats as separate question responses, unlike the other three pollsters who grouped the President with Congressional Democrats into one response.

In the 6 surveys that specifically asked about blame for a potential shutdown since the start of September, 43% on average have blamed Republicans, 36% have blamed Democrats.

But that's still good news for the GOP, at least from a purely comparative standpoint.

In the weeks leading up to the 1995 government shutdown, (which occurred initially on November 14, 1995), well over two-thirds of Americans (39%) blamed the newly-elected Republican Congress for the deadlock, while just a quarter blamed President Clinton and the Democrats (25%); making the Republican's average "margin of blame" 7 points smaller in 2013 than in 1995.

So where should you expect public sentiment to go now that the shutdown is underway? It's hard to say. Immediate media reaction has been overwhelmingly negative for Republicans. Though as Day 2 came to a close, right-wing media, powered by Fox News and The Drudge Report, had been moderately successful at shifting focus to the White House's refusal to sign House-passed appropriations bills that would fund the National Institute of Health, Veterans Affairs, and national parks.

Though if 1995 is any guide (and it hasn't been, at least with regards to public blame for the shutdown), things are about to get a little worse for the GOP. See the table below of every survey to ask Americans who they blamed for the government shutdowns in 1995-96:

Between the two months of government shutdowns that occurred from November 14-19, 1995 and December 16-January 6, 1996, an average of 28% of Americans across eight surveys blamed President Clinton and/or Democrats in Congress, while 48% blamed Republicans. Throughout the course of the entire shutdown, blame split an average 27/45% for the President vs. Republicans in Congress.

This doesn't necessarily tell us much about where public opinion could go during this shutdown, given so many unknown variables, including how long it will last, which side's compromise is adopted, etc. But we can say definitively, based on the numbers, that Republicans are catching less of the blame this time around than in 1995.


We can also conclusively state that despite the GOP's heavier shouldering of blame in 1995, Congress as a whole is MUCH less popular today.

In the six months prior to the '95 shutdown, Congressional approval averaged 32/59% across ten surveys.

Congressional approval in the six months prior to the PRESENT government shutdown averaged a staggeringly low 15/76% across thirty-two surveys, or a net 30 points worse than the already unpopular 1995-96 Congress. See the table below for details:

During the '95 shutdown (from November 14 - January 6, 1996), Congressional approval remained static from it's pre-shutdown levels, dropping only slightly to an average of 30/62% across seven surveys. But apparently, the damage had been done, as Congressional approval sank to 28/62% in the six months following the shutdown. 

It's possible the current Congress could follow the trajectory of the '95-'96 Congress as we head into the 2014 midterms. The bright side for today's Congressmen is they've pretty much already hit rock bottom, with a multitude of surveys putting their approval ratings in the single digits.


Like congressional approval, the electoral battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of Congress changed little during the 1995 budget showdown, though Democrats emerged in a slightly better position than they went in.

In the 6 months prior to the November 14, 1995 impasse, Democrats and Republicans were essentially tied on the congressional ballot, averaging 44% and 43% respectively across eleven surveys. Yet during the months encompassing the two government shutdowns (November 14-January 6, 1996), Democrats inched ahead to 45-40% across ten surveys, a position they maintained in the six months following the shutdown (47-42%):

Of course, in the end, the Democrats only defeated the Republicans on the 1996 House ballot by a miniscule 48.1 - 47.8%, despite having emerged from the shutdown fight with a five point lead.

In the six months leading up to the current shutdown battle, Democrats have led the Republicans on the 2014 House ballot 42-39%, similar to the slight advantage they enjoyed the six months leading up to the Clinton/Gingrich showdown.  It's too early to tell exactly where the generic ballot polling is headed, but very early indications are that the Republicans are taking a hit.


Like the weight of public blame and congressional approval, presidential approval is another place where today's public opinion diverges with public opinion of 1995-96.

Unfortunately for the President, he's not nearly as well positioned heading into this shutdown in terms of job approval as his Democratic predecessor was. Obama's averaged a 45/50% job approval rating since April, a net 10 points lower than the spot President Bill Clinton found himself in from June to November, 1995 (47/42% approval/disapproval).

Yet on the other hand, if history repeats itself, President Obama's approval rating is likely to rise both during, and after the government shutdown ends:

Across twelve polls taken during the 1995 shutdown from November 14 - Jan 6, 1996, Bill Clinton's job approval/disapproval rating averaged 50/39%, a net 6 point increase from the six months prior. And in the 6 months following the government's reopening on January 6, 1996, Clinton's approval inched up even further, to 52/39%.

Though polling is somewhat more limited in the area of political party favorability, there were just enough surveys to make it a worthwhile topic of comparison.

Like congressional approval, both Republicans and Democrats were more popular 20 years ago than they are today. Democrats averaged a 49/40% favorability rating (as compared to their 42/45% average rating since last April), while Republicans averaged 48/41% (vs. their significantly worse current average rating of 33/51%).

And as you might suspect, it was the Republicans who emerged from the 1995 shutdown fight weaker than before, and the Democrats stronger.
In the 6 months leading up to the standoff, 51% of Americans viewed the Republican Party favorably, with just 40% viewing it unfavorably. Democrats were similarly well positioned before the '95 shutdown, at 50/43%. But in the 6 months after the shutdown ended, the Republicans average favorability rating had fallen to just +3 points, or 46/43%, while the Democrats had risen to +10 points, 49/39%.

It's remarkable to note the shift in Democratic and Republican favorability ratings from the snapshot of the '95 shutdown to today. The Democrats have seen a net 12 point negative shift in their favorable/unfavorable rating since then, with Republicans doubling that amount, seeing a net 25 point negative shift over the last 18 years. So while both parties clearly have image problems, the Republican's is much more problematic.

In the end, what's likely to come of all the shutdown madness? I haven't a clue, and I'll leave that to the more skilled forecasters like Trende, Cohn, and Enten (who have all three, for the most part, agreed that the lasting electoral implications are likely minimal). But the numbers are above for everyone to see, and history is our guide. The numbers tell us that although Republicans received significantly more blame in the polls than Democrats for the '95 shutdown, the public did little to punish them at the ballot box the next year. Republicans tied Democrats in the House popular vote, and only lost 3 seats. Republicans won the Senate popular vote, 49-48%, and gained 2 seats. That's not a calamity by any stretch. And sure, Bob Dole may have lost the popular vote 49-41%, but as Cohn and Enten have noted, that's likely because of economic fundamentals.

So looking exclusively at precedent set in 1995, it would appear neither Democrats or Republicans have much to fear long-term over the government shutdown. But events don't happen in a vacuum, and we're only on Day 4.

* Survey measures Democratic and Republican Party favorable and unfavorable ratings, not approval and disapproval.

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