The Battleground: The Shutdown and Looking Ahead to 2014

Celinda Lake, Daniel Gotoff & Alex Dunn, Lake Research Partners

Two weeks after the latest Republican‐led attempt to sabotage this President came to an ignominious end, the dust has settled and we are left to assess the damage. While the harm done to the Republican brand is undeniable and the focus of much of this analysis, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge first the latest estimation of the economic toll on the country as a result of the GOP’s abhorrent hostage‐taking—$24 billion and counting—and the more insidious injury done to the public’s faith in our institutions of government, once a source of pride for both major Parties in this country. As always, the real victims of such reckless behavior are ordinary American families. They are not willing to forgive the incident, nor the apparent and growing pattern of political brinksmanship from the Tea Party Right. In fact, other work we have done shows that this thread of recklessness resonates even more strongly than the charge of extremism.

Voters already assign ample blame to Congress, which they hold directly responsible for the manufactured crisis that plunged our recovering economy back into a state of uncertainty and once again nearly cost us our credit ratings. And while none of the politicians involved in the shutdown and debt ceiling fights has emerged unscathed, there is little question in voters’ minds that congressional Republicans and their Tea Party allies deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

Furthermore, this imbroglio has shaken the American people’s confidence in their elected representatives in a more profound way than Washington’s average political drama. The inability to solve problems in Washington (26% most important), typically a nagging but distant concern for voters, has become so pronounced that Americans now say it is more important to address than any other issue, including jobs and the economy—a first in Battleground history. Independent voters are especially sensitive to this concern, as are voters in GOP‐held congressional districts (to a greater degree than voters in Democratic districts). And while the 2014 midterms are a long way off, the implications have already begun to crystallize: a backlash not against government, but against those who led the charge to create the most intractable, dysfunctional political situation most voters can recall.

The Blame Game
Voters do not mince words when asked who is responsible for the shutdown. Fully half of Americans (50%) point the finger at Republicans in Congress, while just 35% say President Obama and the Democrats are to blame. The political center—self‐described “moderates”—embody this trend, laying the blame even more squarely on the Republicans (50% to 26% for Obama and the Democrats). This bodes especially poorly for the GOP effort to rehabilitate its image after a decisive defeat in the 2012 elections. The main targets of its rebranding efforts, the so‐called Rising American Electorate, rejects the shutdown unreservedly and is quite clear about the Party responsible: young voters (under 30) blame the GOP over Obama and the Democrats, 60% to 23%; Latinos, 58% to 26%; and unmarried women, 62% to 27%.

The “blame” question is, in this case, an important one. Both Parties’ images have eroded in the aftermath of the shutdown, but views of Republicans are quickly descending to record lows. Just over one quarter of voters (27%) rate the Republicans in Congress favorably, compared to nearly two thirds (65%) who hold a negative opinion of the congressional GOP—the lowest ratings afforded Republicans since the Battleground’s inception in 1991. By comparison, voters give Democrats a score of 41% favorable, 53% unfavorable. Democrats can strongly drive home the theme of getting Washington moving again and must be careful to position themselves as part of the solution, not the problem.

Voters now say they regard Democrats in Congress more favorably than Republicans by 26 points. To put this in context, Battleground findings from eight years ago reveal the Parties just 8 points apart (‐3 for the GOP and +5 for Democrats). Four years ago as Obama was still beginning his first term, voters put the two Parties even closer (Republicans at ‐5 and Democrats at ‐7). As the favorability gap between the two Parties continues to widen, it will not just impact voters’ openness to the GOP’s agenda in Washington, it will produce a drag on its candidates, who will be increasingly forced to run away from associations with their Party in competitive races across the country. The “blame” question sometimes produces a superficial result, as it tends to be understood in a more temporal fashion and does not always translate to a long‐term shift in thinking about the party’s desirability or efficacy. In this case, however, the damage does not appear to be cosmetic and opens up a major theme for Democrats with the potential to set up a wave election in Democrats’ favor.

It is not a good time to be a member of the Tea Party. Although Republicans in Congress (especially the House) are suffering widespread fallout from playing politics with the American government and the country’s full faith and credit, voters direct their ire most pointedly at the Tea Party. When asked which Republicans are most responsible, 58% implicate the Tea Party and its supporters and 26% say other Republicans in Congress. Even among the Party faithful, Republican voters fault Tea Party ideologues over other Republicans (48% to 30%), indicating what could be the beginning of an establishment backlash against Tea Party recklessness, as many prominent Republican observers have predicted in recent weeks.

Worse, this incident may represent the end of mainstream voters’ patience with the Tea Party. More Americans see the Tea Party in strongly unfavorable terms (42%) than view it in either somewhat favorable or strongly favorable terms (32% combined). More than half of voters (54%) rate the Tea Party unfavorably overall. By nearly a threetoone margin, moderates say they have an unfavorable impression of the Tea Party (56% to 19%). Seniors and whites, two critical midterm constituencies (who also happen to comprise a disproportionately heavy share of GOP Primary voters), dislike the Tea Party by a 22‐point margin (32% favorable, 54% unfavorable) and a 17‐point margin (35% favorable, 52% unfavorable), respectively. Swing voters are negatively predisposed as well, namely independents (31% favorable, 47% unfavorable) and voters who are undecided in next year’s congressional races (24% favorable, 48% unfavorable).

The President and His Party
Not surprisingly, the political conflicts of the last year—from the fiscal cliff to immigration and the debt ceiling—have taken a toll on President Obama as well, though he remains vastly more popular than Congress. Today, 45% approve of Obama’s job in office, while 52% disapprove. Even so, Obama emerges from a bruising fiscal battle on relatively good terms: voters regard him as slightly more popular than his predecessor at the same point early in Bush’s second term (in the October 2005 Battleground, Bush received 44% approval and 54% disapproval). The President’s personal ratings (48% favorable, 50% unfavorable) slightly outpace Bush’s image at that time as well (46% favorable, 53% unfavorable).

Similarly, congressional Democrats have been spared the worst of voters’ anger, ranking quite close to their standing four years ago, just after the President took office (43% favorable, 49% unfavorable). They lead congressional Republicans on several key issue dimensions, including Social Security (+9), health care (+9), getting Washington working again (+5), and jobs (+1).

Of course, the rollout of the health care exchanges under the President’s signature health care law has also caused a stir in recent weeks. Most Americans (77%) report hearing about the rollout, which has been characterized in largely negative terms despite its successes enrolling hundreds of thousands of Americans in new health care plans. Despite technical challenges and unflinching opposition from detractors of the Affordable Care Act, however, a plurality (42%) says what they heard about the rollout has made no difference in their support for the law. And fully 16% of the voting public (likely more when considering the population as a whole) have already visited to shop for health insurance.

Those who support the ACA today number 43%, compared to 53% who oppose it. However, roughly one in ten (9%) of those who oppose it explain that the ACA did not go far enough in their view, making those who oppose the law because they ostensibly support a Republican alternative (or simply a return to status quo ante) approximately 48%.

The Implications for 2014
Much has been made of whether the shutdown fight will impact the midterm elections next fall and if so, to what degree. This data illustrates voters’ desire to punish those they deem responsible for gridlock in general and the shutdown in particular. Democrats now lead Republicans on the generic ballot 44% to 41%; discounting those who “lean” one way or the other, Democrats lead by six points, 42% to 36%. Democrats lead among women (+8) and are essentially tied among men (‐1). They are ahead among every age cohort, including 18‐34 year olds (+3), 35‐44 year olds (+7), 45‐64 year olds (+4), and 65+ (+1). They lead among liberals (+73) and moderates (+12). And groups that will be instrumental in 2014 have moved toward the Democrats over the past year. Since December 2012, seniors shifted from R+5 to D+1, pre‐retirement voters (ages 45‐64) shifted from R+4 to D+4, and white voters shifted from ‐19 to ‐10.

When asked whether their member of Congress deserves re‐election, voters want someone new by a better than two‐to‐one margin (58% to 26%). Independents are even less willing to re‐elect their incumbents: 69% want someone new (just 16% want to re‐elect their member). The minority that does want to reelect its member plans to vote Democratic by a 16point margin (55% Democrat, 39% GOP). The anti‐incumbent mood can affect members of both parties, but 65% of voters in GOP‐held congressional districts want someone new, compared to 50% of voters in districts controlled by Democrats. Those who put the inability of Washington to solve problems as the most important problem for Congress to solve plan to vote Democratic 51% to 36%. And those who say the shutdown will make a difference to their vote in 2014 are more likely to support a challenge to their current representative than vote to re‐elect them (27% say they are less likely to support their member of Congress as a result of the shutdown). These voters also prefer a Democrat by a significant margin (45% to 34%).

Furthermore, the vast majority of voters (82%) is aware that government funding is set to expire yet again on January 15th, and in the event of another shutdown, voters indicate a willingness to punish those responsible further. By a two‐to‐one margin (30% to 14%), voters say they would be less likely to support their incumbent member of Congress, including nearly a quarter (24%) who say they would be strongly less likely. Swing voters are extremely negative: 39% of independents are less likely, compared to just 11% who are more likely to back their incumbent if another shutdown occurs. The same is true of undecided congressional voters (34% less likely, 9% more likely). Republican claims that Americans desperately want to defund or delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act ring false as well, as public support for the ACA is roughly divided. The past month should prove quite conclusively that taking drastic, destructive measures to halt or delay implementation of the health care law is a politically untenable position.

Aside from the precipitous drop in the GOP’s favorability, a wholesale decline in job approval for voters’ own representatives may represent the most alarming data for congressional incumbents. Even though overwhelming disapproval for Congress as a whole has become commonplace in recent years, voters typically hold their own members in considerably higher regard. Much has been made of this phenomenon, and it is undoubtedly one of the reasons incumbency rates have remained high in the face of extreme displeasure with the institution. Just last year, we found 83% disapproval of Congress—yet voters approved of their own members 44% to 43%. Since then, congressional disapproval ticked up to 87% while individual member ratings plunged to 39% approve, 50% disapprove. Again, Republicans have taken the brunt. Voters in GOP‐controlled House districts disapprove of their own member 55% to 34%, while those in Democratic districts are split (45% approve, 44% disapprove).

Voters clamoring to “throw the rascals out” are unlikely to fade into the woodwork anytime soon, especially now that the average American ranks “the inability of Washington to solve problems” as a greater crisis than job creation, the economy, and government spending and the budget deficit. And once again, the group of voters readily willing to re‐elect their incumbent member of Congress provides a decisive edge to the Democrats in these races.

The Challenge for Democrats
Democrats face several challenges. The first is turnout. While the Party faithful was unusually energized during and immediately following the shutdown, Republicans have reclaimed their typical off‐year enthusiasm advantage (71% of Republicans report an extremely high likelihood of voting in 2014, compared to 64% of Democrats). The Rising American Electorate remains particularly disengaged (African Americans, 58%; Latinos, 45%; young voters, 48%; and single women, 41%).

The second challenge is protecting Social Security and Medicare. Democrats boast a nine‐point advantage on Social Security, including a ten‐point advantage among seniors and a 17‐point advantage among pre‐retirement voters (ages 45‐64). Democrats today win those voters who are most worried about cutting Medicare and Social Security 68% to 19%. It would be a policy and political disaster for Democrats to agree to a grand bargain that cuts these essential priorities.

Finally, Democrats cannot forget the economy. The Party has only a one‐point lead on the issue of jobs and swing voters favor the Republicans by double digits (independents by 14 points and undecided voters by 16 points). Voters overwhelmingly believe the economy is not in good shape generally and half are worried for their own economic security. A majority of swing voters believes the national economy remains in poor shape and that they are not doing well personally (independents: 52% poor nationally, 53% fair/poor personally; undecided voters: 55% poor nationally, 50% fair/poor personally). The economy can never become an afterthought.

The Bottom Line
In less than a year since President Obama was re‐elected, the electorate has already experienced a fundamental shift in its outlook on Congress, the Parties, and the country’s leadership. Expectations that Republicans could regain lost ground in 2014 given more favorable turnout, critical retirements on the Democratic side, and through crafting a more broadly appealing brand are beginning to give way to the realities of internecine strife within the GOP and the public’s anger at the recklessness of the Tea Party.

Voters have also clearly validated President Obama’s outspoken stand against political hostage‐taking, soundly rejecting the GOP’s attempts to gain leverage at the expense of America’s governmental integrity and creditworthiness, and promising that future attempts that risk our economy to further political goals will be punished even more severely. Voters want Republicans to start negotiating in good faith over the major issues of the day, including the budget and job creation. They are more likely to trust congressional Democrats to lead on the major issues that worry them, namely jobs, gridlock, health care, and Social Security. And despite concerns about the Affordable Care Act and its rollout, they want Republicans to allow the law to work rather than re‐fighting the same battles at the expense of middle class families and economic growth.

Finally, voters give Democrats a clear advantage heading into next year’s midterm elections, as much by the GOP’s plummeting image as by the lead they afford Democratic candidates on key issues—and the midterm ballot. Public anger toward members of Congress who did not act to prevent the shutdown will put Republican candidates in competitive districts at a very real disadvantage as they try to present themselves as problem‐solvers to the moderate voters they so desperately need next November.

This analysis is based on the latest George Washington University Battleground Poll, conducted by The Tarrance Group (R) and Lake Research Partners (D). The current edition included 1,000 interviews with likely voters nationwide, conducted Oct. 27-31, 2013. Additional details are available at The Tarrance Group website: Topline | Slides