WASHINGTON – If government agencies begin to shut down Tuesday morning, both sides in the political battle will be carefully parsing poll results, looking to see how upset the public gets and, importantly, who is getting blamed.
Polls so far have indicated that Americans are somewhat more likely to blame congressional Republicans than President Obama for the stalemate over government spending. But the Democratic advantage is notably smaller than it was in 1995 and 1996, when standoffs between then-President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) led to two shutdowns.
In November 1995, just before the first of the Clinton-era shutdowns, Americans by 46%-27% said they blamed Republicans in Congress, rather than Clinton, for the impasse, according to a Pew Research Center survey. An additional 20% blamed both.
This month, a similar Pew survey showed the public blaming Republicans rather than Obama, but much more narrowly, 39%-36%, with 17% blaming both. The gap between the two probably reflects in part the strengthening of partisan lines in the 18 years since then and the fact that Clinton entered the shutdown battle with a higher approval rating (and a stronger economy) than Obama can claim.
Some Republican strategists believe they have another advantage because the current fight involves an effort by members of their party to cut off money for the new healthcare law. It remains unpopular, they note, and at least some Republicans have predicted that the public will be angry that Democrats have defended the law even in the face of a possible government shutdown.
So far, polls don’t offer a lot of support for that theory. The latest CNN/ORC poll, released Monday, does provide evidence of the law's unpopularity. Among the Americans surveyed, 57% said they opposed the law, 38% supported it. That’s a significant downturn since a CNN/ORC poll taken shortly after last year’s election in which the public split 42% in favor to 41% opposed.
But the majority that opposed the law includes 11% who said they think the healthcare law is “not liberal enough.” The number who said they oppose Obamacare and think it is “too liberal,” 39%, was about the same as those who said they support the law.
Moreover, by 60%-34%, those polled said it was “more important” for Congress to pass “a budget agreement that would avoid a government shutdown” rather than legislation “preventing major provisions in the new health law from taking effect.”
Democrats also enter the fight considerably more united than Republicans. By 81%-15%, Democrats said it was more important for Congress to approve a budget agreement than pass legislation preventing parts of the health law from taking effect. Republicans sided against the health law, but by a much narrower 38%-56%, the CNN/ORC poll showed.
That relative unity among Democrats, contrasted with GOP divisions, has shown up frequently in the congressional debates of the past few weeks. Relatively conservative Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have consistently voted with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
But on the Republican side, divisions between tea party conservatives, led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and the party leadership have been public and bitter. One major conservative group, FreedomWorks, sent a message to supporters last week denouncing “Obama Republicans” in the Senate.
How a shutdown might end, if one begins, and who will blink first remain unknown. But the polling data and evidence of GOP divisions suggest that Obama and his party enter the fight with the upper hand.