Republicans Actually Have Some Shutdown Leg Room

Seems like they're the only ones who understand this

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by Charles Ellison | Publisher’s Riff | @ellisonreport

One of the more widely accepted assumptions baked in the lexicon of the ongoing and utterly useless “partial” federal government shutdown is that it hurts President Trump and Congressional Republicans. The chronological timeline on assumption of blame is, of course, correct: the president instigated it with unrealistic fiscal, governing and immoral demands for a border wall while Congressional Republicans - primarily Senate Republican leaders - have obliged by not approving anything less than the $5.7 billion demanded for said wall.

But blame in this case is a lot different from effect.

Facts can easily assign blame to the GOP writ-large, but that won’t necessarily mean they’re feeling the consequences of that blame. And if they’re not feeling any real political consequences from that blame, they (including the president and Congressional Republicans) are not willing to stop. Remember: it’s not like they haven’t shut down the government before.

Headlines will suggest blame is mounting steadily on Trump and Congressional Republicans - note how the two are separate - and that they’re hurting from this. The numbers, however, can suggest otherwise: sure, they’re not exactly winning all hearts and minds with this, but they’re not losing either. Republicans, particularly the president, have considerable public opinion leg space on this. And this is not just because of the base. Now into Day 19 of the shutdown, the president, along with a supporting cast of Republican leaders, will continue to make theater out of stalled negotiations on the federal agency funding held hostage over the border wall.

Trump Still Commands The 40 Percent

Sure: more Americans responding to recent polls blame Trump for the shutdown than anyone else, including 4 percent jumps in Trump across three key polls: YouGov/Economist, Morning Consult and Reuters/Ipsos. And, on average (according to RealClearPolitics) his disapproval rating inched up slightly from 52 percent to 53.9 percent.

But Trump’s approval ratings, after this government shutdown lingers into three weeks and after all the chaos and uncertainty before that, remain fairly steady (while mathematically and historically low).

He hasn’t hit below 40 percent approval since mid-January 2018 when he was at 39 percent approval - and the last time he went below that (at 37 percent) was mid-December 2017. And that’s still, on average, 40 percent. Generally speaking, one can argue his approvals are resilient, and both he and Congressional Republicans see this. They can afford to lose several percentage points because it hasn’t dropped dramatically below 40. And if we go by elections, Republicans remember that only 27 percent of the voting-eligible U.S. population helped him win the presidency in 2016 (minus the Voting Suppression Factor and the 43 percent of the population that didn’t vote).

To the common eye, 40 percent is not good. To the Trump ecosystem, a 40 percent average (sampling from the overall voting eligible population) is obviously much higher than the 27 percent of the overall voting eligible population who voted him into office. That’s also just a little under the roughly 30-40 percent of Americans who believed in “birtherism” enough to catapult Trump into the White House. If he has a performance benchmark, this is probably it.

Congressional Republicans Are Untouchable Right Now

The other big story (that’s not discussed much): The remarkable way in which Congressional Republicans have largely escaped public blame for the shutdown. Technically, they too precipitated the shutdown since they were in charge at its outset on December 22, 2018. Yet, if you go by recent polling data, the public would disagree, as this Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll shows …

When asked who is most to blame for the shutdown …

  • Only 5 percent of YouGov/Economist respondents blame Congressional Republicans (interestingly enough, just 3 percent of White respondents blame Congressional Republicans compared to 10 percent of Black respondents and 11 percent of Latino respondents)

  • Just 6.6 percent of the Reuters/Ipsos respondents polled above blame Congressional Republicans

  • And only 5 percent of Morning Consult/Politico respondents blame Congressional Republicans

So, what does this mean?

  • Republicans, collectively, feel confident they’ve got more leverage in this debate than Democrats. Which is why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) feels comfortable enough refusing to hold a vote on funding the government, thereby abdicating his responsibility as a leader in the legislative branch which is supposed to 1) keep the government functional and 2) act as an essential check and balance on presidential whim. While it’s still a relatively smaller number of Americans polled who blame Democrats for the shutdown (32 percent on average), that’s still quite a few people - and it’s way more than Congressional Republicans. And it’s higher than the 27 percent of the voting eligible population that voted.

  • Also: we keep forgetting that Republicans have never really suffered electorally from a shutdown, as Washington Post’s Philip Bump reminds us. They are keenly aware of this; polls are one thing, but it’s elections that ultimately matter (they were, after all, still able to hold on to the Senate this past cycle). Plus: the next general election is two full years away, and - saving another shutdown - Americans will forget all about this one. Shutdown episodes appear masterfully timed by Republicans that they’re usually able to avoid blame by the time the next election comes around.

  • Congressional Democrats, at some point, are probably in a better position to slightly capitulate to the president’s demands since they can’t shake the blame they’ve received. That’s not to say they should, but they’re looking for a way out of this and ceding to a re-definition of border wall in favor of something like “enhanced border security” could be where this goes. And it’s not all that clear that moral arguments around the condition or pain of migrants on the border is an argument that resonates with the American public (according to Pew, just as many Americans (29 percent) don’t want more immigration versus those who do (24 percent)). That’s not saying it’s an incorrect argument - it’s just saying that Democrats may need to focus squarely on the fiscal malfeasance and executive overreach dimensions of this debate.

  • And Trump not only commands a stable and consistent rarely-below-40-percent rating, but he can easily combine forces with Congressional Republicans and use them as a buffer due to their stunningly low blame rating.

This isn’t to suggest that Trump and Republicans are right. They’re not. But it’s helpful to get a real grasp of the public opinion climate as opposed to thinking several polls will make this all magically go away - or to scratch your head in frustration struggling to understand why Republicans are going one way while the “public” (poll respondents) appears to say “no” to that. Don’t act as if citing the toplines to a public opinion poll will help the situation.