In the 1980s James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, the villain Maximillian Largo tries an interesting way to kill off the protagonist, with a video game. After they play an electronic version of “Risk,” Bond gets a nasty shock…literally… from his control panel. “Oh I forgot to tell you,” the villain smirks. “Unlike armchair generals, we will share the pain of our soldiers when we lose.” And of course, as the game ramps up, so does the voltage.
Most people, even presidents themselves, think our leaders are impervious to the pain of economic shutdowns and will win them. That’s not the case, as I have found, when looking at survey numbers.
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The myth is that presidents win government shutdowns. There are a variety of reasons for this. People vote for their president, and their representatives—but only for one of the total 438 U.S. representatives, and only two of the total 100 U.S. senators. Voters can’t control the other 95 percent+ of the others in office. That’s why presidents typically have higher approval ratings than Congress, regardless of the party in charge of either.
But this myth is most likely supported by the events of 1995-1996. President Bill Clinton got in a showdown with newly-minted House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, which began in 1995 and dragged into 1996 (the longest government shutdown history, unless this one surpasses it). As the “evidence” shows, Clinton was easily reelected, defeating Dole in 1996. Gingrich never seemed to recover, and resigned after the 1998 election. Thus, the myth was born.
But a closer look at the statistical evidence shows that it’s a false myth. At the start of the shutdown, Clinton had a 53 percent approval rating in the Gallup polls. That number plummeted 11 percentage points by the end of the shutdown. Sure, Clinton was reelected, but it’s now clear that he won another term in spite of the shutdown—not because of it, as so many believe.
The Clinton case is hardly an isolated event. I looked at several other cases from Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump, and in the majority of all government shutdown cases, the president went down in approval ratings. In the majority of all cases, the president’s party also lost the next presidential election.
You’ve probably heard folks say that the shutdown is no big deal. Rasmussen Reports claimed that folks thought it was a “nothingburger” (the dumbest political term ever created). Budget Director and now Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney once said it was “kind of cool” to preside over a shutdown.
Well, a reader recently emailed me about her situation, asking if I could help. She wrote about how her son-in-law has been furloughed without pay, and her daughter says they are running out of savings. The Wall Street Journal also ran an article documenting how there’s more than just a few employees being affected; up to 13.5 million Americans could be financially hurt by the shutdown. The author of the WSJ report doesn’t think it’s “kind of cool.”
I am sure Trump is digging in because he’s getting advice from a couple of pundits like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh who have fed him the Clinton myth, and he’s hoping that this will lead to his reelection. But if history is any guide, the evidence shows that he’s getting some bad advice and will pay a heavy price in the polls, and possibly lose his presidency, due to his stubbornness. He needs to work on a compromise, and rehabilitate his public opinion position, if he wants to win another term.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.