POLITICS
01/20/2018 13:05 EST

The GOP Will Likely Take Blame For The Shutdown. It May Not Matter By November.

What the polls so far tell us about the impending shutdown blame game.

President Donald Trump and his party are likely to bear the brunt of public blowback for the shutdown, three polls released in the runup to the event all suggest.

But how pollsters ask about the situation matters. And using recent history as a guide, there’s good reason to suspect that any blowback from a shutdown could wear off long before November.

Americans said by a 20-point margin, 48 percent to 28 percent, that President Trump and Republicans would be more to blame than Democrats for the impending threat of a shutdown, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Friday. Nearly 80 percent of Democrats put the blame on the president and his party, while a smaller two-thirds majority of Republicans cast the blame on the Democrats.

Quinnipiac poll out earlier in the week, which separated out Trump from the congressional GOP, found that 32 percent of voters would blame Republicans in Congress, 34 percent would blame Democrats in Congress, and another 21 percent would blame Trump. And a third survey from CNN and the polling firm SSRS, released Friday, which also asked a three-way blame question found that 31 percent would place the most responsibility on congressional Democrats, 26 percent would place it on congressional Republicans, and 21 percent would assign it most to Trump (a tenth volunteered that they’d blame everyone). 

In both cases, that works out to a plurality of blame focused on Trump and the GOP, even if the Democrats don’t emerge entirely unscathed.

But the CNN/SSRS poll also posed another question with a very different framing, asking respondents to choose whether it was more important for Congress to “[approve] a budget agreement that would avoid a government shutdown” or to “[pass] legislation to maintain the program which allows immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the U.S.”

In response, Americans prioritized keeping the government open, 56 percent to 34 percents. Even Democrats were relatively divided, with 49 percent more concerned about the DACA program, but 42 percent more worried about a shutdown. Republicans and independents overwhelmingly said avoiding a shutdown was more important.

None of these questions are inherently better or worse ways of looking at the shutdown. But the discrepancy between the responses underlines how much it matters what frame Americans will use to think about the shutdown when they’re not being directly asked by pollsters ― or how much they’ll be thinking about it at all.

That’s especially challenging to gauge based on polls conducted before the shutdown, which required Americans to hypothetically assign blame for an event that hadn’t yet happened. And a lot will depend on both parties’ messaging in the days to come, as well as the length of the shutdown and the degree of tangible effects to come out of it.

Still, it’s not a stretch to suggest that a high-profile bout of government turmoil isn’t likely to do much good for the party that controls the White House, House of Representatives and Senate. If that holds true, it could stem what appeared to be a modest recent improvement for the GOP in voter preference polls ahead of this year’s congressional election, a measure in which they’re still currently lagging.

But Democrats hoping a shutdown would saddle the opposition in this year’s midterms should take a cautionary note from the shutdown in 2013 under the Obama administration. The GOP, which only controlled the House of Representatives at the time, also took the blame, causing an immediate, damaging effect on the party’s image, which plunged to a record low.

That effect, however, wore off long before Election Day 2014, when the Republicans saw sweeping gains.

Polling from that election cycle shows this in action ― the public’s preference for a Democratic candidate over a Republican one spiked sharply as the specter of a shutdown loomed in fall 2013, but receded almost entirely in October and November, returning to the status quo less than three months later. 

There are a few differences this time around. Election Day is a little closer for one thing, and, Republicans’ control of the government may make it harder for them to disperse the blame. Democrats are starting from a far stronger electoral position in these midterms than they were in four years ago. But it’s far from clear that the shutdown will have much to lend to their arsenal by November.

The Washington Post/ABC News poll was conducted Jan. 15-18 among 1,005 adults, while the CNN/SSRS poll was conducted Jan. 14-18 among 1,005 adults, and the Quinnipiac poll surveyed 1,212 registered voters between Jan. 12-16. All three used live interviewers to reach both landlines and cell phones.