GOP Pollster: What Went Wrong, And Why

Oct 23, 2013
Originally published on October 23, 2013 4:14 pm

How badly did the recent fiscal fight go for the GOP?

Here's one hint: Prominent Republican pollster Bill McInturff opens his "after action report" on the government shutdown with a quote from Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu on the skills needed in picking the terrain of battle: "He who knows them not, nor practices them, will surely be defeated."

McInturff then goes on to catalog the woes the party has suffered over the previous month. "Defunding" President Obama's health care law, the original goal of the showdown, actually got less popular over time. Voter sentiment shifted to support Democrats for Congress. And approval ratings for Republicans have plummeted — to below 30 percent, nationally.

"There's no question that the Republican Party brand and the public perception of Congress are at historic lows," McInturff said in an interview with NPR.

McInturff is the Republican half of the bipartisan polling team for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, but this report was done for his clients and colleagues. He said it was drawn from those joint polls, but that he also used some data from Gallup polling.

One section titled "Why it happened" features bar graphs showing the ideological range of the House over time, from most liberal to most conservative. In 1982, 344 of the 435 members fell between a broad swath bounded by "most liberal Republican" and "most conservative Democrat." Three decades later, that number has shrunk to just 11 members.

McInturff also points to a lack of "long term" institutional knowledge in Congress –- 47 percent of the House and 44 percent of the Senate have only been in office since the start of the Obama administration five years ago.

By further way of explanation for the push to get rid of Obama's signature achievement, McInturff has a page titled "Understanding the world through the view of Republican members of Congress in their districts." While in the country as a whole, Obama's approval rating is within a few points of his disapproval, in the 233 Republican districts Obama's numbers are 37 approve to 57 percent disapprove. And while the nation as a whole prefers a Democratic-controlled Congress by nearly double digits, the exact opposite is true in the Republican districts.

This helps explain one of McInturff's forecasts for the coming months: "Do not expect much change in how Congress functions and the level of likely paralysis that continues to lay ahead."

Another of McInturff's predictions offers some comfort to Republicans worried about the possible consequences of the government shutdown: "The significant shifts in attitude today are not a predictor, though, of whether the shutdown will end up truly impacting the 2014 election."

There is, after all, more than a full year between now and Election Day 2014.

"In America, the big story of today is rarely the big story a year from now. Whether it be the impeachment votes against President Clinton in 1999 that everyone presumed would be hugely consequential in the next election, the Democrats not voting for the use of force in the two Iraq wars — all of these were perceived at the time to be game changers for the next election, and none of them mattered," McInturff said, pointing out that over the past two months, the story of the day has moved from Syria to the shutdown to the health care law's website. "By next October, there will be national events, world events — there will be things of such consequence that it is very unlikely that the October campaigns of 2014 are going to be dealing with what happened in the shutdown of 2013."

S.V. Dáte edits politics and campaign finance coverage for NPR's Washington Desk.

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