Consistent with the idea that the 2012 election didn’t convey a mandate, public opinion about the shutdown battle doesn’t suggest a clear-cut victory for either side. Partisan loyalties dominate: the vast majority of Republicans say they’ll blame Obama and congressional Democrats for a shutdown, and the vast majority of Democrats say they’ll blame congressional Republicans. Independents are only a bit more likely to say they’ll blame Republicans (41 percent) instead of Obama (32 percent) or both parties (23 percent). And Americans seem ambivalent about the relevant policy debates: the majority doesn’t want a shutdown but doesn’t want to raise the debt ceiling without some conditions. The majority disapproves of the Affordable Care Act, but does not want to cut off funding for it.
All of this complicates any prediction about which party will benefit politically from this battle. At the moment, the GOP is forecast to gain seats in the House and Senate. Democrats hope for a replay of 1998 — when in the wake of the government shutdown and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton — the party gained seats in the 1998 midterm. Republicans would be foolish to dismiss that experience (as DeMint wants them to do): research (pdf) by political scientist Benjamin Highton suggests that views of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, which were more negative than was approval of Clinton, cost the GOP votes. But at the same time, there is no Republican leader in Congress that was as polarizing as Gingrich was. On Election Day in 1998, 56 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Gingrich, 34 percent had a favorable view, and 11 percent had no opinion. In a March CNN poll, views of Boehner were more evenly split (34 percent favorable vs. 39 percent unfavorable) and a larger fraction (27 percent) had no opinion. 2014 may not shape up like 1998.