The ongoing Tea Party-induced crisis over the Affordable Care Act, the government shutdown, and the debt ceiling appears to be taking a substantial toll on the Republican Party’s popularity. According to Gallup, the GOP’s favorability ratings are the lowest ever recorded. Arguably, this has even cost the party some of its policy goals. Charles Krauthammer suggests that the party could have slowed or undermined the Affordable Care Act, but instead, they drew attention away from it just when it was receiving its worst reviews to date.
So the big question remains: Will Republicans pay a price for this? Can you stage a very public protest that shuts down the nation’s government and threatens its economy and not pay an electoral price for it?
There are a few ways to think about this. According to the “Theory of Parties” paper (by Bawn, Cohen, Karol, Noel, Zaller, and myself), voters will punish officeholders who engage in ideologically extreme or reckless behavior, but voters also have a “blind spot.” That is, they are only selectively attentive to politics, and you can actually engage in fairly ideological behavior without them noticing. So parties prefer to nominate candidates and push policies that exist just at the edge of voters’ blind spots. Parties want politicians to get as much as they can out of the political system but come just short of actually making voters angry.
Another thing to keep in mind is that voters are notoriously myopic. To the extent that they punish officeholders for their behavior, it’s usually for things that happened very recently.
What happens if you make voters angry? A study by Carson, Koger, Lebo, and Young shows that members of Congress who vote too often with their party actually suffer a vote penalty for it in the next election. Similarly, elected officials who are too ideologically out of step from their district tend to do worse in elections, according to a study by Canes-Wrone, Brady, and Cogan. For an example, we need look no further back than the 2010 vote in Congress for the Affordable Care Act. In a paper I did with Nyhan, McGhee, Sides, and Greene (PDF), we found that Democratic members of the House of Representatives who voted for the bill ran about eight points behind Democrats who voted against it. That single vote made them look more liberal, and that warranted punishment in the eyes of many 2010 voters.
If you want to do something with a bit lower profile, like changing logging rules or greenhouse gas regulations in order to satisfy some of your activist base, go for it. Most voters will never hear about it, and the people who do already have their mind made up about you anyway. But start a war, try to create or kill a piece of the social safety net, raise taxes, or shut down the government and its major services, and people will definitely notice, and they may punish you for it. That’s way outside of the blind spot, and if you operate there, you’re courting a reprisal. (Another way to operate outside the blind spot is to shrink it by drawing attention to what you’re doing, as Senator Ted Cruz did during his marathon Senate speech.)
But another thing to keep in mind is that voters are notoriously myopic. To the extent that they punish officeholders for their behavior, it’s usually for things that happened very recently. Sam Wang draws upon recent public opinion polls to find that the Democrats’ chances of taking back the U.S. House next year have gone from 13 percent to 50 percent, but that election is still more than a year away. (It’s not a coincidence that this standoff is happening now, and the last debt ceiling standoff occurred in 2011—both off-years for elections.) Lots of other things that voters may care about will happen between now and then. Congressional elections will also be affected somewhat by the economy, but voters will be evaluating an economy that doesn’t yet exist. Basically, they’ll be looking at economic growth in early 2014.
One other thing to keep in mind is history. The president’s party almost never gains seats, no less takes over a chamber, in a mid-term election. Since World War II, the only times the president’s party actually gained seats in a mid-term were in 1998 (during a booming economy) and 2002 (in the wake of 9/11). Both of those gains happened when the president was unusually popular, and it’s hard to see how Obama gets to that point in the next year given that his approval ratings have been mired in the 40s for so long. The Democrats probably won’t lose a ton of seats in 2014 no matter what happens—they lost their most vulnerable districts in 2010—but barring some unusual events, they’re not likely to take many, either.
All of this is to say that it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Democrats will certainly try to bring up the shutdown all throughout next year in an effort to portray Republicans as beholden to an extremist Tea Party faction. But the chances of this yielding anything that could be characterized as a major Democratic win next year are pretty long.