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The Government Shutdown Effect: Big In The Short Term, Small After That

The U.S. government is partially shutdown. The Senate couldn’t cobble together the necessary 60 votes to keep the government open. And the blame game has already begun: Republicans in Congress and the White House are trying to make “Schumer Shutdown” stick (after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer), and Democrats are calling it the “Trump Shutdown.”

So who is the public going to side with? And will the shutdown, however long it lasts, affect the 2018 midterms?

A look back at previous shutdowns suggests that there could be a clear, immediate political reaction, but that those effects are likely to fade over time.

The short term

Republicans lost the public relations battle during the last two shutdown fights — in late 1995/early 19961 and October 2013. During both those episodes, Americans said that the Republican Congress was more to blame for the shutdown than the Democratic president. In both cases, congressional Democrats expanded their lead on the generic Congressional ballot by about 5 percentage points.

Yet, as I’ve written previously, neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama escaped unscathed. Although voters sided with the president at the time over the Republicans in Congress, voters also disapproved of how the administration handled each shutdown. This, in turn, led to their approval ratings declining.

Of course, this shutdown could prove to be different for a number of a reasons. First, we don’t have divided government. During those previous shutdowns, Democrats controlled the White House and the GOP controlled Congress. But Republicans control everything right now. So maybe the public will pin even more of the blame on Republicans this time than in past shutdowns. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken before the shutdown started found that 48 percent of Americans believe President Trump and congressional Republicans would be more to blame for a shutdown, while just 28 percent said congressional Democrats.

On the other hand, the polling on who is to blame might not be telling the whole story. A CNN poll, like the ABC News/Washington Post poll, found that most people would blame Trump or congressional Republicans for a shutdown. But CNN also found that 56 percent of Americans thought it was more important to avoid a shutdown than to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which gave temporary legal status to young immigrants who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children. Replacing DACA, which Trump ended last year, is the main thing Democrats want in exchange for their votes, and Republicans need some Democratic support in the Senate to pass a spending bill. There are only 50 Republican senators who are available to vote2 — far short of the 60 required to reopen the government. That means that congressional Democrats are, in fact, playing a role in this shutdown, which is something Republicans are emphasizing.

So, depending on who the public comes to blame for the shutdown, don’t be surprised by a relatively clear and immediate effect. If Trump and the GOP get most of the blame, Trump’s approval rating (on an upswing recently) could suffer and Republicans’ position on the generic ballot could deteriorate pretty quickly. If Democrats get most of the blame, their generic ballot lead might shrink. And, of course, if the public comes to blame both parties, I’d expect everyone’s numbers to dip.

The long term

All that said, and even if there is quick shutdown effect in the polls, the midterm elections are not until November. With Trump in the White House, it’s difficult for any story to stay at the top of the news cycle for more than a few days. With that in mind, it’s easy to see one side picking up political support in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown, only for that bump to fade with time.

Indeed, prior shutdowns haven’t had long-term electoral implications. Republicans recovered on the generic ballot by February 1996, just a month after the final shutdown of that period ended. And in the elections later that year, they held onto their majorities in both the House and Senate. Clinton, meanwhile, recovered his lost support by March 1996. He would go on to easily win reelection later in 1996.

Basically, America put the same people who shut the government down back in office.

The 2013 shutdown tells the same story. Despite losing the blame game, Republicans jumped to a lead on the generic ballot by late November 2013 — their first of the year. In the 2014 midterms, they expanded their majority in the House and won back the Senate. Meanwhile, Obama continued a long-term decline in his approval ratings in the months following the 2013 shutdown, but recovered to his pre-shutdown approval level by April 2014.

Obviously, we’re dealing with a very small sample size in terms of historical examples. We don’t have a ton of polling with which to examine the political effects of prior shutdowns. So, perhaps this shutdown will prove different. Americans list dissatisfaction with government as the most important problem facing the country. In such an environment, the government shutdown could, for example, be held up by Democrats during the midterm campaign as the ultimate demonstration of the inability of Republicans to get things done on an issue (DACA) that most Americans support.

But your safest bet right now — at least until we get more polling as this story unfolds (or ends) — is that the long-term electoral effects of the shutdown will be minimal.


  1. There was one shutdown in November and another in December and January.

  2. Republican Sen. John McCain will miss any vote because of illness.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.