Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Will Republicans Pay a Price for the Government Shutdown?

• October 14, 2013 • 8:00 AM


Or will the majority of voters have moved on to other issues by the time we reach the mid-term elections?

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.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.

December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.

December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.

December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?

December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.

December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.

December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.

December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.

December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.

December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.

December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.

December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.

December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.

December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.

December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.

December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.

December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.

December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.

December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?

December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.

December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.

December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.

Follow us

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.