Worth Discussing

Polling Trends on the Government Shutdown

Luke Frans | October 10, 2013

With week 2 of the partial government shutdown drawing to a close, momentum appears to be building for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling and government funding. Public polling during the last 11 days offers several important lessons should a deal fall apart or we return to an impasse in a few weeks time.

1. Obamacare remains a political albatross for Democrats, but a government shutdown has proven to be more toxic to voters. First, it’s patently revisionist and hypocritical for the White House to claim the health care law is settled in the affirmative. From day one, overall opposition (and intensity) has consistently been against Obamacare. Exit polls from 2012 show presidential voters favor repealing all or part of the law by 49 to 44 percent. The level of opposition is nearly identical to that in the wave midterm elections two years prior.

Since winning a second term, President Obama has done little to uproot the deeply grounded opposition and surrounding confusion over his health care law, not to mention the train wreck of policy and implementation glitches. Per the most recent Fox News poll, Independents join Republicans in supporting efforts to repeal all or part of the law by 60 to 32 percent and 79 to 17 percent among Republicans.  Democrats are isolated in their support, choosing to keep the law intact or expand it by 69 to 28 percent.

Unfortunately in the context of a government shutdown, Obamacare is the lesser of two evils.

Unlike previous trends, Independents look more like Democrats than Republicans when it comes to partially shutting down the government in order to right the wrongs of Obamacare. Three-quarters of Independents join 86 percent of Democrats in disapproving of this action, according to a CBS News survey. More noteworthy, Republicans are split: 48 percent approval to 49 percent disapproval.

By 59 to 38 percent, even those who oppose Obamacare believe a partial government shutdown is not the way to go. A government shutdown divides Republicans and flips the anti-Obamacare coalition, which is why the shutdown stopped revolving around the health care law several days ago.

2. The plan of using a government shutdown to spark a national discussion on Obamacare fell flat. Prior to October 1, it was reasonable to believe that a partial government shutdown would dominate public attention and hinder efforts to force an Obamacare showdown. Now there’s evidence supporting that claim.

According to Pew Research, during week 1 nearly three-quarters of Americans followed news about the government shutdown either very closely (43 percent) or fairly closely (30 percent), while 1 in 4 remained distant (15 percent not too closely and 11 percent not at all). Compared to other national debates since 2009, only coverage of President Obama’s economic stimulus, his first budget submission to Congress, and the 2010 Obamacare debate received greater attention than the shutdown.

While still a majority, fewer Americans saw news about the turbulent opening days of the health care exchanges: 57 percent did so, including 33 percent following the news very closely and 24 percent fairly closely. Yet these developments were lost on 4 in 10 Americans (22 percent not too closely and 20 percent not at all).

The news that did break through about the health care exchanges was widely negative, according to a new AP poll. Only 27 percent had a positive opinion regarding the rollout, while 40 percent think things are going not too well or worse. In a preview of what health care looks like with greater federal government control, 73 percent of those attempting to sign up experienced problems.

Unfortunately, instead of shinning a spotlight on these real-life problems, this story was overrun by debate over which parts of the government to fund, the National Park Service shutting down open-air memorials, the shameful lapse of benefits for families of fallen soldiers, and others along the same line.

3. While the White House and some in the media view the government shutdown through the lens of the Tea Party, the intransigent factions of Republicans and Democrats are equal in size. Several public polls since the shutdown have made a point to highlight Tea Party crosstabs, as if it’s news that a segment of the electorate holds a healthy distrust of an activist government. News polls rarely highlight the far left crosstabs of liberal voters who strongly favor more government spending, regulations, and cling to an unshakeable faith in the power of Washington.

Similar percentages of Republicans and Democrats believe their party should hold firm at the negotiation table. In the same CBS News poll, 38 percent of Republicans believe their congressional leadership should stick to their positions in dealing with President Obama, while 36 percent of Democrats believe President Obama should not compromise with Republicans. Not surprisingly, 80 percent of Independents want both sides to meet in the middle.

Pew Research finds the same balance of inflexibility between both parties. A majority of Republicans (54 percent) opposes ending the government shutdown if the only way to do so is keeping the health care law intact. On the other hand, a slightly higher majority of Democrats (58 percent) disapproves of changing the health care law in order to reopen the government.

4. Women are following the government shutdown more closely than men, and that should be concerning for Republicans. In recent presidential and midterm elections, women voted in greater numbers than men by 4 to 5 points, and Republican challenges in improving their standing among moderate women have been well documented.

According to a Fox News poll, women are more likely than men to view the government shutdown as a very serious problem, 66 percent and 50 percent, respectively. By a similar margin, women are also more likely than men to view the government shutdown as definitely a bad thing, 75 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Pew Research also finds that 55 percent of women are very concerned about the economic impact of the government shutdown, while 41 percent of men hold the same opinion. These numbers confirm the tone of the shutdown debate is as important as the debate itself.

5. The Blame Game. We entered the government shutdown certain of one thing: there will be no shortage of blame to go around. Above 50 percent in January, President Obama’s job approval now registers in the low-to-mid 40’s, and voters are increasingly pessimistic about the direction of the country.   After tempering in late 2012, Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track today by greater than 2-to-1.

The complicating factor for Republicans is that they’re viewed less favorably than Democrats, so more voters perceive them as culpable. Voters are more likely to blame Republican leaders than President Obama or congressional Democrats by 8 to 13 points, according to several polls.

These margins are consistent with opinions of swing voters. Independents are more likely to fault Republicans (40 percent) than Obama/Democrats (30 percent) or both (24 percent), per CBS News. That’s in line with the Fox News poll: Republicans (40 percent), Obama/Democrats (27 percent), and both (32 percent).

Moreover, majorities of Independents disapprove of how all parties are handling the fiscal stalemate, but once again more blame falls on Republicans. According to the Washington Post/ABC News poll, 54 percent of Independents disapprove of President Obama (39 percent strongly), 63 percent disapprove of Democrats in Congress (45 percent strongly), and 71 percent disapprove of Republicans (50 percent strongly).

Not only do both sides share blame, but also majorities of Americans believe President Obama and Republicans are not doing enough to negotiate according to the AP poll, 52 and 63 percent, respectively. It’s understandable that the Republican number is higher given what we’ve already covered, but the majority response for the president is worrisome for Democrats. It’s clear the American people do not think Harry Reid was referring to the leader of his party when claiming to have negotiated “our hearts out.”

Concluding Thoughts

With control of one-half of one branch of government, the fight to defund Obamacare faced serious challenges from the outset.  Public opinion remains stacked against Obamacare, and this is problematic for Senate Democrats in red states, so conservatives should look to 2014 and highlight Obamacare’s policy and implementation woes along the way.

The reasonableness of President Obama has been tarnished in the shutdown. The president strikes a harsh chord when his message to Congress and the American people is a barrage about not negotiating rather than leading a divided government. Let’s remember, not long ago voters believed Mitt Romney, not President Obama, was better able to bridge the partisan divide. Habitually labeling Republicans as arsonists and hostage takers reminds voters of the president’s own weakness in this area.

While this is not your 90’s shutdown, it is not an enviable position for Republicans either. Still the big picture remains intact. Independents desire a government that both functions and lives within its means. If Republicans can put the shutdown dysfunction in their rear view mirror, they can move to a more favorable playing field, connecting with a majority of Independents who want the government to stop spending money it doesn’t have. There’s reason to believe that shift is underway.

Filed under: Political Climate, President Obama, and Health Care