The government shutdown is frustrating. But it doesn’t mark the end of the Republican party, as some have suggested. Here are 8 reasons why.
1. Most of the “damage” is already done. A shutdown does what past rounds of budgetary brinkmanship, especially over the debt ceiling, haven’t already accomplished. Partisans of both sides made up their minds long ago, and no large and politically-engaged chunk of the population is sitting on the fence.
2. There’s no reason to think the electorate will overwhelmingly blame Republicans. Even if the public is paying attention, polling suggests most Americans will split attribution for a shutdown between the two parties, though slightly more are likely to blame the GOP. This means little. The temporary surge in generic ballot support for Democrats means even less. A protracted closure will begin a lengthy process of jockeying between the House, Senate, and White House, which will overshadow blame for initiating the shutdown. Moreover, for shutdown-blame to matter, it has to be powerful enough to last until next November, and geographically concentrated enough to swing an election in a particular state or district.
3. 2014 is a long way away in political time. The last major shutdown started less than a year before a presidential cycle. We’re simply too far from the midterms for this to matter unless it tanks the economy. Structural factors aside, elections get decided close to when they occur. Think about presidential polling: At this point in 2007, Hillary Clinton was throttling Barack Obama, but was going to have a hard time besting Rudy Giuliani in the general election. Citizens are unlikely to link events now to voting late next year. Even if they do, Democrats will face the headwind that members of the president’s party historically encounter during midterms of the president’s second-term.
4. The last shutdown wasn’t especially damaging. To hear it told, Republicans gambled on a shutdown with Clinton, a staring contest ensued, and then the GOP got slaughtered at the ballot box the next go-round for its intransigence. But there’s no evidence to support this account. The Republicans in the House lost only three – that’s right three – seats in 1996, and that was running against down-ballot effects from Clinton’s reelection campaign. Until then, the GOP hadn’t held the House in successive cycles for seventy years.
And the picture stayed rosy. Democrats gained only five seats in 1998. Gingrich remained in power as speaker until 1999, only to be unseated by another Republican – an intraparty coup in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, not the shutdown. All told, Republicans have held the House in seven of the nine cycles since they shut down the government, and have only lost double-digit seat counts twice: in 2006 and 2008. If that’s failure, it looks pretty good.
5. The 2014 board favors House Republicans. Even if Americans hate the shutdown and overwhelmingly blame Republicans, few GOP House incumbents are electorally vulnerable this cycle—that’s thanks to redistricting. List how many GOP candidates are up for reelection in close districts in the lower chamber. They’ll fit on one hand. A blow to the Republican brand makes it harder to pick off Democrats in the House occupying conservative-leaning seats – three of them in Arizona for those keeping score at home. But it’s extremely unlikely that the House changes hands regardless of whether the government shutters its doors for a few days.
6. Obamacare is still unpopular, and Democrats are vulnerable in the Senate. Four vulnerable Democratic incumbents – Begich, Hagan, Landrieu, and Pryor – just chose a shutdown over an Obamacare delay. Tom Cotton will probably beat Pryor in Arkansas, anyway. Landrieu is a seasoned and talented politician, but she faces an uphill battle against Bill Cassidy. Begich has prudently gone local in Alaska, where the Republican nomination remains an open question, but it’s a very red state. Although GOP opposition to Hagan has not coalesced around Thom Tillis, this vote plays into Republican characterizations of her as an Obama foot soldier. South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia look like Republican pickups—meaning, the party needs to unseat three of these incumbents to win the Senate.