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2013's Shutdown Backlash Against the GOP Is Actually Weaker Than 1996's

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The public is angry. That much is clear after a week of polls since the government shutdown. But it’s harder to dissect how the public is apportioning blame between the two parties—let alone whether the GOP will suffer for it at the ballot box.

No matter how you look at it, the GOP is in a tough spot. Every post-shutdown poll shows that more voters blame Republicans than Democrats, by approximately a 10 point margin. But the numbers aren’t great for Democrats, either. The share of voters blaming Republicans exclusively is well beneath 50 percent, suggesting that today’s persuadable voters—the key voters on the road to 50 percent—are angry at both parties. Other questions show broad dissatisfaction with both parties. A majority of voters say they disapprove of Obama’s performance on the budget; a majority of voters even say they’re “angry” with President Obama, as well as congressional Democrats.

That’s not what the polls found in the 1995-1996 shutdown, when nearly half of voters consistently put the blame on the House Republicans. Back then, polls showed Clinton with a 23 point advantage over Republicans on the "blame" question; today, it's just 9 points. And when you add up the number who blame Republicans or both parties, the number of people blaming Republicans has dropped from 68 percent in 1995 to 60 percent in 2013.

Even so, more voters are frustrated with Republicans than Democrats. In two polls, the sum of voters who disapprove of both parties and President Obama falls short of 50 percent; the sum of voters who disapprove of Republicans and both parties exceeds 50 percent in every poll. And even the voters who are frustrated with both Democrats and Republicans seem more frustrated with Republicans. According to ABC/Washington Post, 51 percent of voters strongly disapprove of how Republicans are handling the shutdown, compared to 45 percent who strongly disapprove of congressional Democrats and 39 percent who strongly disapprove of the president.

The demographics hints at the possibility that the backlash against Republicans might be stiffer than the top-line numbers. To win in 2014, Democrats will need to make particularly large gains among white voters, who dominate the competitive Midwestern and mid-Atlantic districts that will likely determine the House. The ABC/Washington Post data shows that 67 percent of whites disapprove of the congressional GOP’s performance. That’s only 3 points less than the 70 percent who disapprove overall. So we might infer that nearly half of whites strongly disapprove of congressional Republicans—well above the 39 percent of whites who voted to reelect the president, and perhaps higher than the 45 percent of whites who voted for Democrats in the 2012 House elections.

But whether Democrats can translate public opposition into significant gains in the House is far less clear. Unfortunately, these polls didn’t ask the “generic ballot” question about whether voters would prefer Democrats or Republicans in control of the House. But there are plenty of reasons for caution. The combination of gerrymandering, strong Republican incumbents, and weak Democratic recruiting make it very difficult for the Democrats to take the House. And if the polling is clear on anything, it’s that President Clinton was better positioned than President Obama—yet Democrats didn’t come close to taking back the House in 1996. So although it’s clear that the public is more upset at Republicans than Democrats, it remains to be seen whether the GOP will suffer great costs.