The mythology that has arisen around the December 1995 government “shutdown” (if the government does not really shutdown, is it really a shutdown?) suggests that it as a crushing political and policy defeat for the Republican party. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Newt Gingrich (Speaker of the House at the time) makes a compelling case that it was a political and policy win for the GOP. (Actually, there were two “shutdowns” — a five day “shutdown” in November, and then a 21 day “shutdown” from December 16th to January 6th.)
While I’m not sure it was a political “win,” an examination of the data shows it was not a loss either. Republicans only lost nine seats in the November elections, holding on to a tenuous majority that Democrats had guaranteed would be just a two year reign. Eighteen GOP incumbents lost, compared to just three Democrats, but the GOP won over a net six Dem open seats. Most of the incumbents who lost were from the Northeast or Midwest. The few who were from other parts of the country tended to be fluke wins in 1994 by candidates who opted to be controversial rather than competent.
But let’s look at other data. Clinton’s approval rating was already climbing up prior to the shutdown. During the summer, Clinton had averaged 46% approval before dipping to 44% in September. But, in October, he rebounded to 49%, and then hit 53%, 51% and 52% in November, December, and January respectively. Going from 49% pre-“shutdowns” to 52% is not helpful to Republicans, but neither is it remarkable. Clinton’s approval rating reached a high of 60% in September of 1996, with the likely driver being 5% GDP growth for the year, rather than the shutdown. Clinton had a significant number of key markers in Presidential campaigns going his way — he would have won without the “shutdowns.”
The more politically problematic numbers came on the generic ballot, where a one point deficit in October (41% GOP/42% Dem) shifted to a three point deficit in December (41% GOP/44% Dem) and then dropped to eight points in January (38% GOP/46% Dem). To lose only nine seats after dropping to minus eight on the generic ballot at the turn of the calendar is pretty remarkable. By October, polls among likely voters were showing that GOPers were down three points on the generic. That underscores how Republicans were able to run strong campaigns and shift those perceptions in a shorter time frame than they would have now.
(Interesting and snarky note — Democrats won the popular vote for Congress, but obviously did not win a majority of seats. It served as a good test run for their 2000 Presidential strategy of winning the popular vote while losing the electoral college.)
Unemployment and the national debt were much lower in 1995. Before the “shutdowns,” unemployment was just 5.5% in December, and only went up to 5.6% the next three months. The national debt was $4.99 trillion dollars, which sounds like a lot until it is compared to our very current $14.1 trillion.
Voters are currently more divided on who they would blame in a shutdown than in 1995. Back then, voters were ready to blame Republicans 43%-32% over Bill Clinton. Now, voters are pretty evenly divided in who they trust to make the right decisions about reducing the federal budget deficit — 42% trust GOPers in Congress, while 42% trust Obama.
All of the analysis about the impact of a government shutdown is akin to pregame analysis before the Super Bowl. Pregame analysis is cheap, and things will change IF there is a “shutdown.” I am not arguing that the GOP was helped by the shutdown in 1995, but a look back shows whatever damage happened was highly contained. Clinton had enough going right for him that he would have been re-elected regardless, and Republican House losses were minimal (and not necessarily attributable to the shutdown). At the same time, there is no question from the data that the shutdown hurt the GOP on the generic ballot, although we were able to come back on that prior to the election. Certainly at the time the political pressure seemed huge, but by November voters had moved on to other issues.