Princeton Election Consortium

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How long will the shutdown’s effect on opinion last?

October 17th, 2013, 10:42am by Sam Wang


A video clip of my appearance last weekend on MSNBC is here. It is brief, but I did state the main point: the shutdown leveled the House playing field in a rather unexpected manner. Republican-gerrymandered districts (FL, MI, OH, NC, PA, VA, WI) have swung away from Republicans about twice as hard as the rest of the nation. Why? When you pack your opponents into a few districts, your own districts end up with a lot of independents, who are swayable.

My own analysis of current surveys indicates that in a Congressional election today, Democrats would retake the House with >90% probability and a 50-seat margin. Last week I pointed out that assuming historical patterns, by next November that probability for the actual election diminishes to 50% or less. Another estimate gives a comparable probability of 25-35%.

However, the last two weeks have been quite strange – as evidenced by the fact that you are visiting the Princeton Election Consortium, reading about polls an entire year before a midterm election! So something might be different. I’ve never seen such a rapid and large shift in the generic Congressional preference. Will this “shutdown bounce” last? Or will it dissipate quickly?

I estimate that in the absence of any further political crisis events, the current bounce will affect opinion for between 2 and 6 months. Here’s the argument.

First, let’s think about it from the standpoint of my own field, neuroscience. The brain doesn’t have one memory system – it has multiple memory systems. Our memory for factual events requires the hippocampus, and those memories can fade over time. In contrast, strong emotional memories (like post-traumatic stress disorder) require just one experience, use the amygdala, and can be very sticky, i.e. long-lasting. On top of this complexity is whether we convert our memories into actions. In this case, the question seems to be whether independent voters will retain their change in preference for a long time.

When suitably aggregated, the generic Congressional ballot is a good predictor of the national vote. Between now and November 2014, I would normally expect the popular vote to be shifted by 3.4+/-4.0 points toward the Republicans compared with current measured conditions. This is based on the fact that most years, opinion seems pretty stable:

2006 generic Congressional preference

Even when a shift does occur, it would be expected to take several months and come as the election draws near. In the wave election of 2010, opinion moved slowly toward Republicans, ending with a big swing starting in October:

But what we’ve seen in the last two weeks doesn’t look like that at all. More than anything else, it looks like a single big event.

To see anything comparably fast, we have to look at Presidential ratings. Here is President George W. Bush’s approval rating after two memorable and emotional events, the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq:

George W. Bush approval 2001-2003

A sharp jump in opinion can also happen during Presidential races, when voters are paying attention. Here are some bounces from 2008 and 2012 associated with Sarah Palin’s VP acceptance speech, Paul Ryan’s addition to the ticket, and the first Obama-Romney debate:

Although all these bounces come from different types of political polls, it might be possible use them to get a sense for how lasting the current bounce will be.

The reason they are useful is that not all bounces are created equal. The Palin and Ryan bounces were smaller (2-5 point swings) and furthermore might have been simply a rallying of party faithful. The largest events, 9/11 (a 60-point swing) and the Iraq invasion (a 30-point swing), are more likely to include Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

What’s notable is that the larger the swing, the longer-lasting it is. It’s not just that there is a longer way for opinion to fall. On average, voters take longer to shift when the swing is large. Why is that? One possibility is that the size of the swing is a measure of how powerful the experience was. Obviously, 9/11 was an unmatched event in public memory. (Measured in units of opinion, the Congressional shutdown was about one-eighth as large in its effect as the 9/11 attacks.)

Now let’s convert the duration of each bounce to a “half-life,” defined as how long it takes opinion to get halfway back to where it was headed before the bounce. I estimate the above bounces as follows:

Event Swing (%) Half-life (months)
Palin 2008 2% <0.5
Ryan 2012 4% <0.5
Debate#1 2012 5% 1
Shutdown 2013 8% ???
Iraq invasion 2003 30% 3
9/11 attacks 60% 10

This suggests that a shift of the size we have just seen should have a half-life of 1 to 3 months. Since declines seem to be steady over time, that would suggest that opinion will get back to where it was in 2 to 6 months, well before the election – assuming that no further politically disruptive events occur.

Given the current political climate, it is entirely conceivable that more events will happen. The government is only reopened until January, and President Obama asked yesterday if we’re going to be doing this all again in 3 months. If so, the shutdown bounce would start looking more like a long-lasting shift.

Tags: 2014 Election · House

19 Comments so far ↓

  • Doug Kahn

    Budget negotiations over the next three months will no doubt have an effect, but in which direction? I think that party unity by House Democrats mattered a lot during the recent doings. Nancy Pelosi was able to say she had the support of every single member of her caucus. I doubt that will continue to be true over the course of the budget negotiations. Divisions over contraception, abortion, chained CPI, voting rights may surface.

    Question: do divisions within a party caucus affect voters’ perceptions of the party as a whole (the generic ballot question), and if so can that effect ever be teased out of polling data?

  • bks

    Ted Cruz, like fellow Texan Rick “Oops!” Perry, is now an object of ridicule. That is a wound that does not heal. But I think events in the fall of 2014 will be more important than anything amygdalic with respect to the House of Representatives.
    –bks

  • arj

    interesting that half of your 12 highly gerrymandered districts voted for shutdown and default. the right two columns are tea party caucus membership and the vote to end the shutdown

    dist , name , t, v
    FL-02, southerland, n, n
    FL-10, webster , n, y
    FL-13, young , n, n
    MI-01, benishek , n, y
    MI-07, walberg , y, n
    MI-11, bentivolio , n, n
    OH-06, billjohnson, n, n
    OH-14, joyce , n, y
    PA-07, meehan , n, y
    PA-08, fitzpatrick, n, y
    VA-02, rigell , n, y
    WI-07, duffy , n, n

  • Peter K.

    I honestly don’t know how things go in 3 months.

    You would think they wouldn’t do this again as the elections are approaching, but the Tea Partiers are cheering Boehner on. Maybe he’ll allow them another tantrum in three months. However I doubt people will believe he will shoot the hostage so it won’t be as dramatic.

  • curiousboor

    I agree that the recent (and future?) shutdown/dept limit crisis will effect 2014, but how does this account for historically low Dem turnout in midterms? Perhaps this was explained in recent posts and i missed it?

    • Sam Wang

      Yes, that was included in my previous estimate of differences between now and Election Day. Basically, I calculated the difference between opinion polls and election outcomes. That would include all factors, including your concern.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Sam, your plots are from presidential elections, where voter participation is saturated. Midterms have lower levels of participation, skewing R.

    So, is it possible that a (Dem-rich) population whose motivation is usually below threshold is now willing to vote in the midterms? Could they be driving these numbers? Maybe their motivation falls back below threshold with some halflife also, but can be revived with media reminders and outreach.

    Also, I read this from Greg Sargent of the WP:
    “… But it could have a lasting impact if it enables Dems to recruit good candidates right now, which could matter to the outcome.”

    I suspect a lot of the deep red districts do not draw top tier Democratic candidates. If this changes, it might sway Independent votes, and increase D participation.

    • Sam Wang

      That is possible. If you look at the top HuffPost graph, the Republican number is fairly flat, and may even have gone up a little bit.

      I agree that partisan enthusiasm is a key factor here. Generally the midterm trend favors Republicans, not Democrats: see Figure 4 of Bafumi et al. Whether this year is different because of the negative public reaction to House Republicans, I can’t say.

      Regarding candidate recruitment, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee indicates that it is having had good luck.

  • Alex Patton

    A fantastic piece! I wrote a piece “Chill out! Back to the political basics”.

    If this shutdown is isolated, no big deal.

    If this all happens again in three months, we Republicans could be in trouble moving into next year.

    • Olav Grinde

      Alex — I found your website and read your piece. Excellent food for thought, but I do have one comment. You wrote:

      “…it is the economy’s health not during the months immediately leading up to an election date, but the economy about a year out from an election that frames that election.

      I would argue that it is the perception of the economy, rather than the economy itself, that will be decisive for the upcoming 2014 election.

      It does not help that the increase in government expenditures under President Obama (1.4% in 2010–2013) is at the lowest level since Eisenhower, and far lower than Reagan (f.ex. 8.7% in 1982–1985), when what is perceived is what the GOP/Fox News has been shouting for years.

      It does not help that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is already bending down the runaway increases in health care costs, and reducing the deficit (ref. Congressional Budget Office), if Republican candidates are successfully shouting that Obamacare is creating a wild deficit and burdening future generations with debt.

      It does not matter that George W. Bush’s (unfinanced!) war against Iraq and invasion of Afghanistan, and unsupported tax reductions for the rich, created a huge part of the national debt, when that is already displaced from the public discourse.

      None of this matters unless the Democratic Party and President Obama can succeed in conveying their message.

      With the GOP’s capitulation, the President and the Democratic Party have scored a clear victory. However, there needs to be good messaging in its aftermath.

      Imagine, for a moment, an inverse situation: The Democrats had closed down the government and threatened default unless the GOP and a Republican President retracted the Patriot Act and agreed to a 10 % cut in the military budget… And they have just been forced to give up. I assure you that the Republican post-victory messaging would be far more forceful and far more effective than what we are seeing.

      The sad fact is: Clarity of message trumps truth. And as Fox News’ popularity makes eminently clear, emotional truthiness trumps objective reporting of reality.

      Moreover, should the economy experience a downswing soon, or the launch of the ACA be a dismal failure, then the GOP is well-positioned to shout “We told you so!”

    • Amitabh Lath

      Olav, I agree that it is the perception of the economy that matters. Reading about anger of the conservatives about the deficit, Social Security, etc, one is forced to ask: are these people even marginally numerate? Can’t they read a graph? Deficit shrinking. Federal workforce at historically low levels.

      Or is it the fact that interpreting a graph correctly would entail abandoning deep-seated animus against the “other” (non-real americans) ? That is why rising deficit in the Bush era is ok, and falling deficit in Obama’s must be ignored.

      Don’t even get me started on global warming. How these right-wingers can look at the Keeling plot and not see what is clearly evident, that floors me.

  • Chatham

    A few things I wonder about:

    1. How is conservative backlash against the Republican’s failure to stop Obama care going to play out? My initial belief is that all the talk about supporting a third party is all bluster and the troops will fall in line come 2014. Though I think it’s possible we might see more far-right Tea Party challengers than if this never occurred.

    2. It seems like the distance between the GOP on issues like gay rights, abortion, the role of religion, etc. is growing larger (and candidates are getting quieter about those issues in the general election). If the GOP moves away from these positions/tries to avoid them, will there be any backlash amongst the domionists? (and is there so much overlap with other core Republican constituencies that they’ll support the GOP anyway?)

    3. As others have asked, are the Dems more likely to put muscle behind the midterms now that many think victory is possible and now that they understand they understand what’s at stake? I have to say, the last couple of weeks really made me want to throw some money at Democratic candidates. I doubt I’m the only one.

  • Eric Walker

    It would be wonderful if Dr Wang would, in time, repeat his highly useful lists of races where contributions are likely to have the highest leverage. My email inbox is flooded with requests for money for this or that race, and it’s hard to know which races are pushovers (one way or the other) and which really competitive.

  • Amitabh Lath

    This concept of halflife assumes that events like the shutdown are sudden impulses to our collective decision making. The decay back to status quo ante is basically voters flipping back to their nominal state as time passes. The decay rate is a measure of how quickly/slowly we change back, measuring the nation’s Green’s function if you will.

    So we’re basically a ferromagnet. That’s fine as far as it goes. For 9/11 that certainly seems a good model.

    But maybe for the shutdown people are processing what happened more slowly. A lot of people around national parks and monuments were affected, where there are a lot of R voters. They may not be aware of how their particular congressperson behaved during this episode. But these things come out during hard fought campaigns.

    So maybe that 1st plot from huffington pollster, rather than showing an impulse that slowly decays away, instead is showing the first part of a slow turnon, more like a sigmoid.

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    There’s another aspect of the shutdown that may end up extending its eventual impact: Almost every member of the House is now on record for what they voted. House Republicans who voted yes will now be more likely to face tough primaries from the right, and House Republicans who voted no will have that fact brought up in the general elections.

  • Joshua Cordes

    What if, unlike Bush fils’s slow, lengthened decline after 9/11, polls instead mirror the huge bounce then rapid decline Bush père saw after the Gulf War (before he lost re-election rather convincingly)? I don’t see a recession (and jobless recovery) coming before the 2014 election, but a poor economy can still completely upend whatever bounce the president’s party may have gotten more recently.

  • ReasonOverFaith

    Any chance you could give a poll aggregate for the upcoming Va. Governor race? I was flying high until I read a Quinnipiac poll showing the race was at 4 points. Down from 7 the week before. I know your home state of NJ is a given to Christie. But the election here is important. Thanks, Dr. Wang.

    • Sam Wang

      McAuliffe’s leading in 34 out of the last 34 polls, and you want an aggregate? My goodness, you scare easily.

      Go look at this, sort the last N polls in order, and take the middle value. That’s the median, and that is your aggregate. I’d set N to be for the last 10 days or so.

      Then there is the question of turning this into a probability…oh, who are we kidding? There is not any real question about how this one will turn out.

  • ReasonOverFaith

    Well, it is 9:20 pm and Coocoonutty is still barely ahead. This is not looking too good at the moment.

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