WASHINGTON — Sometimes polls state the obvious. Sometimes they surprise. The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal and Gallup polls, which landed in the middle of the government shutdown late last week, did both.
Everyone knew that the shutdown and threats of a government default would damage the political standing of all parties in the Washington drama. That was obvious. What was surprising was the amount of damage that was done in so short a time — and especially to the Republican Party, whose tactical mistakes led to the shutdown, soon to enter its third week.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollsters Peter Hart and Fred Yang conducted the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. All are veteran practitioners, but even they seemed startled by the findings. McInturff, in an analysis, wrote, “Overall, this is among the handful of surveys that stand out in my career as being significant and consequential.” Hart called the survey “jaw-dropping.”
Why? It’s worth ticking through some of the numbers. Pessimism about the direction of the country and the economy were up dramatically. Almost eight respondents in 10 said the country is now seriously off track, a jump of 16 points in a month. Four in 10 said they now expect the economy to get worse over the next year. McInturff said it is only the fifth time in 20 years that such pessimism about the economy has reached or exceeded 40 percent.
The current standoff is corroding public confidence in government — just as it did two years ago during the last tortured negotiation over raising the debt ceiling. Anger at the political class in Washington has risen to levels rarely seen. In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, six in 10 — a record — said that if they could do so, they would vote to replace every member of Congress, including their own. Six in 10 also said that what is happening in Washington makes them worry more about the future of the economy.
President Barack Obama and the Democrats did not escape criticism, but the Republicans were in a different league in terms of how the public assessed blame. The shutdown has been a political debacle for the Republicans. Images of both the Republican Party and the tea party, whose followers in the House pressed for the strategy that led to the shutdown, registered record lows. Just 24 percent said they had a positive impression of the GOP. The tea party’s positive rating was just 21 percent.
Fifty-three percent of all Americans blamed the Republicans for the shutdown. Only 31 percent blamed Obama. More than two in three said Republicans had put their own agenda ahead of the country’s interests, while 51 percent said that of the president.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., who staged a 21-hour filibuster demanding that the Affordable Care Act be defunded as the price for keeping the government running, tried to slough off the results. He told NBC News on Friday that the poll was “not reflective of where the country is.” Cruz must have missed the findings of the Gallup organization, which released numbers almost identical to those of the NBC-Wall Street Journal.
A series of headlines on the Gallup website charted the political fallout from the current impasse, which has kept the government shut for two weeks and could lead to a default by the federal government next week if the talks now underway between congressional Republicans and Democrats and White House officials do not bear fruit.
“American Satisfaction With U.S. Gov’t Drops to New Low,” said one Gallup release. Just 18 percent said they were satisfied with the way the country is being governed, down 14 points in a month. That 18 percent represented a new low — one point worse than at the end of the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle.
Other releases also highlighted public dissatisfaction with Washington. “Americans Down on D.C. Leaders Since Shutdown Began,” said one. “In U.S., Perceived Need for Third Party Reaches New High,” said another.
But as in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Gallup found that the public is not assigning blame equally. The GOP fared as badly in Gallup’s survey. Just 28 percent of respondents said they viewed the Republican Party favorably. In Gallup’s long history, that represents a record low for either political party. The GOP’s rating dropped 10 points in a month.
Democrats aren’t greatly admired, either, but their overall rating is 43 percent positive and had dropped only four points in the time the GOP rating plunged 10. The survey also provided evidence that the shutdown is creating tensions within Republican ranks. In the Gallup findings, self-identified Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to rate their own party unfavorably.
Three other points flow from the latest poll numbers.
The first is that while Democrats may take some comfort from the relative disparity in perceptions of the two parties, they should be worried about the general disaffection about both parties and the federal government’s capacity to solve problems.
The surveys point to the fact that many Americans look at Washington and see a political class insulated from the impact of either the shutdown or the economy’s weaknesses — a group more concerned with political gamesmanship than the well-being of working families.
The second reality is that no one can know yet how all this will play in next year’s midterm elections and certainly not in the 2016 presidential race. There is simply too much time between now and then for either side to draw conclusions about the long-term impact. Right now, Democrats hold an edge in terms of which party people prefer in House elections. But that was the case in October 2009. Thirteen months later, Republicans won 63 seats and control of the House.
The third point, despite the fact that the next elections are a long way off, is that Republicans cannot ignore the devastating impact this is having on their party. That’s one reason why some GOP senators are working now to find a way out.
But that raises another question, which is why virtually no one in the party stood up and publicly challenged the strategy that brought the GOP to this point. Many Republicans could see the potential for damage building day by day as Cruz carried out his marathon floor speech and House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, kept clinging to efforts to defund or delay Obamacare when none had a chance of success.
Some Republican senators have long chafed at the House’s tactics, but in this case they let those tactics play out, with predictable consequences. Republican governors complained about the shutdown’s possible effects on their states’ economies but declined to blame their party’s congressional wing.
The first order of business is finding a way to end the shutdown and avoid default. But in the aftermath of all this, once the fever has broken, those who aspire to lead the Republican Party will need to do a serious stocktaking and ask the questions they failed to ask as the debacle unfolded.