Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


capitol-night

(PHOTO: ORHAN CAM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Will Republicans Pay a Price for the Government Shutdown?

• October 14, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: ORHAN CAM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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