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The High Stakes of Republicans’ Budget Vote

In Manhattan today, federal prosecutors released an indictment against the founders of the two largest companies to offer online poker to Americans, Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, charging them with fraud and seeking more than $3 billion in penalties.

In Washington, meanwhile, Republicans just made an all-in bet.

It isn’t surprising that the House Republicans approved Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which had been endorsed by their leadership. What was more remarkable, however, was the near-unanimity of the vote: just 4 Republicans dissented, while 2 others did not vote. (Democrats voted against the proposal 189-0).

Of the six Republicans who either voted no or did not vote, only three appeared to do so for reasons of electoral strategy. Dave Reichert, a Republican from suburban Seattle whose district leans Democratic, declined to vote on the bill. Denny Rehberg of Montana, who is running in a highly competitive Senate race against the Democratic incumbent Jon Tester next year, voted no, as did David McKinley, a freshman Republican from a poor district in West Virginia.

In addition to these Republicans, the idiosyncratic Ron Paul voted against the bill, as did Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, but both come from extremely safe districts. Speaker John A. Boehner did not vote, as is customary when the speaker’s vote is not needed.

But of the 60 Republicans who come from districts where President Obama won at least 50 percent of the vote in 2008, 59 voted yea, the only exception being Mr. Reichert.

So far, no polls have been conducted on Mr. Ryan’s budget as a whole. But — although voters will like the deficit reduction it claims to achieve (several outside analysts have questioned the bill’s economic findings) — a couple of its individual elements figure to be quite unpopular. In particular, the bill includes substantial changes to Medicare and Medicaid — changes that many voters tell pollsters are unacceptable. And it would cut the top tax rates, when polls usually find that most Americans want taxes on upper-income Americans to be raised rather than lowered.

There are two obvious precedents to cite for the vote, one of them considerably more favorable for Republicans than the other.

In January 2009, Republicans unanimously opposed Mr. Obama’s economic stimulus package, despite his being very popular and the stimulus package polling reasonably well at the time. The vote helped to establish a mood of Republican discipline and made for more consistent messaging, and public support for the stimulus later waned as the economy continued to stagger.

But then there was the vote in March of last year, when 219 Democrats, but no Republicans, voted to approve Mr. Obama’s health care bill. Subsequent analysis has revealed that the 34 Democrats who voted no on the bill were considerably more likely to retain their seats, controlling for other factors.

The health care vote may be the more relevant of the two examples. In contrast to last year, when Democrats were always almost on the defensive, they now have few competitive seats of their own to defend, and are sure to critique today’s vote in stump speeches and campaign advertisements over the course of the next 20 months.

At the same time, one of the reasons the health care bill may have become as unpopular as it did is because of the friction it often created among Democrats, who spent almost a year debating between different versions of the proposal. Although it is hard to see the electoral upside in the Republicans’ budget vote, a greater amount of intraparty dissent could have conceivably made the bill seem less credible and less popular, deepening the downside case.

Democrats, however, are also more unified than normal, with the unanimity of their vote today coupled with Mr. Obama’s budget address on Wednesday, in which he criticized the Republican approach.

One possible consequence of the vote is that it could tie the fate of Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Congress more closely together. In the past, presidents have rarely had substantial coattails when running for a second term; Bill Clinton’s Democrats won just 9 seats in the House in 1996, for instance, even though he beat Bob Dole overwhelmingly. In 2010, however, the share of the vote received by Democrats running for Congress was very strongly correlated with support for Mr. Obama, and today’s vote could deepen that connection, making it less likely that voters will return a divided government again.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.