Will the government shutdown cost the GOP the House?

Republicans are playing a dangerous game by shutting down the government. But that doesn't mean they'll lose.

John Boehner
(Image credit: (Win McNamee/Getty Images))

Before the government started closing up shop on Oct. 1, only Democratic fundraising appeals seriously argued that Republicans could lose control of the House in 2014. Thanks at least in part to redistricting after the GOP's 2010 wave election, there are so few competitive districts left that control of the House appeared a fait accompli, at least until the next Census in 2020 ushers in a new round of gerrymandering.

Then House Republicans' insistence on undermining ObamaCare as part of any budget agreement led to the government shutdown, and the shutdown is careening toward a possible first-ever default on the U.S. national debt. The GOP has taken a hit in the polls, and for the first time the idea of a 2014 Democratic takeover of the House has become more than just a liberal, West Wing–worthy daydream.

A recent poll from Democratic outfit Public Policy Polling, for the liberal group MoveOn, found that, if the election were held today, Democrats would win about 17 to 30 seats, giving them control of the House. Even with the partisan tilt of those pollsters, NBC News political director Chuck Todd sees the possible seeds of a Democratic wave election in 2014, especially if "things really went off the cliff, and the economy went down, and Republicans are bearing the brunt":

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium — the drier, more academic version of Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog — is slightly more bullish on the Democrats. It's hard to see how the shutdown will play out a year from now, he acknowledges at The Washington Post, but "at this point I do expect Democrats to pick up seats next year, an exception to the midterm rule" that usually has the president's party losing seats.

Of course, the big question is how the current snapshot, a probable House turnover to the Democrats, will evolve in the coming 12 months. At the moment we are in territory that resembles 1995, a shutdown with blame going largely to congressional Republicans. If the government is funded with a continuing resolution (CR), then opinion could easily swing back and the GOP could hold on to the House. But what if the government hits the debt ceiling? In such an extreme circumstance, which has been called the domestic equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the outcome I have calculated here becomes quite a plausible scenario. [Washington Post]

Here's his scenario, laid out in graph form. If at least half the 24 dots (House seats) are in the gray zone, Democrats take the House; according to the PPP poll, 17 dots are in the gray:

Now, there are a few good reasons why Republicans shouldn't fret, and Democrats shouldn't get too excited. The first key asterisk, as Wang points out, is time: A year is forever in politics.

The second, says Nate Cohn at The New Republic, is that the PPP poll measures "how House Republicans would fare against a 'generic' Democrat, not the mediocre one they'll face in 2014." Democrats could have picked up more seats in 2012 if they'd had stronger candidates in more districts, and they're currently nowhere near getting good enough candidates to "ride a wave of public frustration with the shutdown" into control of the House.

"Perhaps the shutdown will trigger a wave of GOP retirements and Democratic recruits," Cohn says. "But without both, Democrats will probably crest short of 218."

And in the end, the chance that voters will directly punish the GOP for the shutdown is slim, says Jonathan Bernstein at A Plain Blog About Politics. In fact, voters are more likely to punish Democrats if the shutdown has long-term economic fallout. And as for the PPP poll, Bernstein says, "Wang is totally wrong to believe that there's anything predictive there at all." But the indirect effects of the shutdown could help the Democrats — or the Republicans.

Conventional wisdom in House races (and to a lesser extent Senate elections) can be self-fulfilling. If party actors on both sides believe that it's going to be a good cycle for one party, then that party will recruit better candidates, suffer fewer retirements in tough-to-defend districts, and have plenty of resources available. And since candidate quality is extremely important in House elections, that's going to swing seats in the favored party's direction....

All of which is to say that it's likely that the best Democrats can realistically hope for is for indirect effects of the shutdown to cancel out the other indirect effects out there and produce a push election, or maybe small gains. Nothing is impossible, of course, and if this winds up being significantly worse than the 1995-1996 shutdowns then we will be in uncharted territory of sorts. But I'd be very surprised by a large Democratic win in 2014. [Plain Blog]

To be fair, Wang isn't actually predicting a Democratic takeover of the House. "At this point, an analyst would have to be crazy to predict that that will happen," he says. However the current polling seems like "mandatory information for a Democratic campaign strategist — or any Republican incumbent who won by less than 20 points in 2012."

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us