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Polling Matters
Looming Shutdown Would Further Damage Government's Image
Polling Matters

Looming Shutdown Would Further Damage Government's Image

Chart: data points are described in article

The looming shutdown of the federal government -- because elected officials cannot agree on immigration policy -- would almost certainly do further damage to Americans' already negative view of the government.

Only one in five Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and President Donald Trump's job approval is historically low for presidents at this point in their administrations. The government is so troubling to some that 25% of Americans mention it when asked to name the most important problem facing the country, more than any other issue or concern. The inability to reach agreement on how to fund the government would confirm these low opinions -- and most likely make them even worse.

It's important to note that government is more likely than immigration to be perceived as the nation's top problem today. In other words, Congress' inability to fix a problem of lesser importance to most Americans (immigration) will potentially exacerbate a problem viewed as of greater importance (government).

The record of the public opinion damage done by the last government shutdown in October 2013 is pretty grim. Americans' confidence in the U.S. economy sank dramatically as a result of the shutdown, job approval of Congress reached its all-time low of 9% the month after the shutdown, and ratings of most of the government leaders involved fell significantly. Satisfaction with the way the nation was being governed in October 2013 dropped to 18%, which stands to this day as the lowest in Gallup's history of asking the question.

Additionally, the percentage of Americans who said that dysfunctional government was the top problem facing the nation reached 33% in October 2013, which also continues to stand as the highest such percentage in Gallup's history of asking the most important problem question.

All of our research over the years shows that the people want their elected representatives to compromise rather than stick to principle and get nothing done. More specifically, in the midst of the 2013 crisis, Americans by a 2-to-1 margin said that they wanted the people in government who represented their views on the budget shutdown situation to agree to a compromise plan -- even if it was a plan "you disagree with" -- rather than hold out for the basic plan they wanted.

In line with these underlying sentiments, just before the 2013 shutdown and during the 1995 shutdown that preceded it, Americans were more likely to say the shutdown was an attempt by both sides to gain political advantage than to say it was an important battle over principles and the future direction of the government. Given Americans' low opinions of Congress and the executive branch now, I have no reason to expect these types of cynical views of the reasons for a shutdown wouldn't be the same (or even more cynical).


Shutdowns usually devolve into a "blame game." Trump, in the current situation, is already blaming Democrats for being intransigent, as are Democrats blaming Republican leaders. In the two most recent shutdowns, the government was divided across the two legislative houses and the executive branch, but our data still showed that the image of the Republican Party took more of a hit than the image of the Democratic Party. This year, Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency, so it is likely the Republican Party image will again take more of a hit -- although the exact way the situation plays out will obviously affect that.

The longer-term impact of a shutdown, should it occur, remains to be seen. A Gallup review of the 1995 shutdown showed that then-President Bill Clinton's job approval rating improved in the months after the shutdown. In addition, his favorable rating improved, Congress approval edged up, U.S. satisfaction recovered, views of the economy improved, and views of the deficit and government as the top problem dropped back down again.

Since the 2013 shutdown, Congress' image has remained quite negative, despite improved views of the economy. Similarly, although satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. is up from the 16% recorded in October 2013, it's still low (29% in January) on an absolute basis -- again, despite the highly improved views of the economy. Some of this could be the lingering aftermath of the shutdown.

A government shutdown is, in some ways, analogous to a corporation suspending operations because its management team can't agree on how to make decisions and run the company. That would not be an optimal outcome for employees or for customers or shareholders. In this situation, the inability of the nation's elected representatives to agree on how to make decisions and run the country would be similarly less than optimal.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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