One month before the 2016 election, America listened to the Republican nominee lament his failure to “fuck” another man’s wife, and then brag about how he could get away with grabbing women by their vaginas without seeking consent. Hillary Clinton’s lead in national surveys swelled. By October 18, she led Donald Trump by seven points in RealClearPolitics’ poll of polls.
Two weeks later, the race was back to where it was before grab ’em by the pussy entered the American lexicon. At the start of October, Clinton had bested Trump by a little over 2 percent; on November 1, she led him by the same margin.
Trump’s unexpected victory caused much of the public to disdain the polls that had preceded it. But the media’s underestimation of Trump’s chances was born of inaccurate state-level surveys; the popular vote was broadly consistent with national polling. Which is to say: There is little reason to doubt that Clinton would have won a landslide victory had the election been held in mid-October. It wasn’t that the Access Hollywood tape didn’t matter — it just didn’t matter for longer than three weeks.
The past few days have produced piles of punditry about which party is best positioned to “win” a government shutdown. This question isn’t a wholly idle one: How a shutdown impacts public opinion in the immediate term could influence congressional negotiations over immigration and the budget. But much of the chatter has centered on how such legislative dysfunction would impact this year’s midterm elections. Some commentators argue that it would doom the Democrats’ red-state incumbents in the Senate, as swing voters in Missouri, Indiana, and Montana would punish Team Blue for putting “illegal aliens” over bipartisan problem-solving. Others predict that the voters will reflexively blame the party in power.
But none of them explain why an electorate that forgot the GOP nominee’s sexual-assault confession in 21 days will remember a temporary suspension of nonessential government services in ten months.
Have these people seen the news cycle lately? A little over three months ago, a psychopath in Las Vegas perpetrated the deadliest mass shooting in American history. It was off the front page within days, out of the policy conversation within weeks, and barely figured in year-end reflections on Trump’s first year in office. Last June, an anti-Trump gun-lover — who took “the resistance” concept a bit too literally — opened fire on the Republican congressional baseball team. The event passed from the headlines in about 48 hours. If Trump hadn’t congratulated Steve Scalise on the wonders that bullets had done for his waistline, the incident would be deep down the memory hole by now. Last week, we learned that the president had an affair with a porn star that apparently involved an act of sadomasochism perpetrated with a Forbes magazine, and I’ve already forgotten the first half of this sentence.
There are 291 days between now and the midterm elections. The biggest story in American politics 291 days ago was Susan Rice’s alleged role in “unmasking” the names of Trump campaign officials in intelligence reports. If an election were held today, how many voters would make their selection on the basis of that story, or of any other contemporaneous development?
Granted, the failure of Congress to fulfill its minimum duties to the American public may be more relevant to voters than the average political news story. But that’s not saying much. And the evidence for the electoral salience of government shutdowns is razor-thin.
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell, offered this dire warning to Democrats on Thursday:
Republicans did take a short-term polling hit following the 2013 shutdown — and proceeded to gain nine seats in the Senate, and 13 in the House in the next midterm election. Conventional wisdom suggests that the GOP paid a great electoral price for the shutdowns it engineered in 1995 and 1996. But the conventional wisdom is almost certainly wrong. As the election analyst Sean Trende has explained:
For all the talk of the sustained damage the Republicans suffered, the actual evidence for this is pretty weak. In 1994, Republicans won 230 seats in Congress. Five party switches and a special election victory later, they entered the 1996 elections with 236 seats.
They emerged from those elections with 228 seats, for a loss of eight total (including the open seat of one of the Democratic Party switchers). So while Republicans lost seats, it ended up being something of an empty victory for Democrats: Americans elected a Republican Congress back-to-back for the first time since the 1920s.
If shutdowns didn’t linger in the public consciousness long enough to have much effect in the pre–Fox News era, there’s no way that this (hypothetical) one will in the epoch of the Twitter president.