Why Republicans Probably Won't Feel the Pain Like They Did in 1995

The last shutdown brought a dramatic reversal of GOP fortunes. But partisan sorting and gerrymandering mean this time might be different.
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Mike Theiler/Reuters

Resolving the serial showdowns over the federal budget and debt ceiling may be more difficult now than during the last shutdown under Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich because so many more House Republicans today represent safely GOP districts, a National Journal analysis has found.

This suggests that even if a public backlash develops against a shutdown or potential government default, Republican members may be far more insulated against those gales than their counterparts were during the two shutdowns in the winter of 1995 and 1996. Today's GOP legislators, for the same reason, also may be less sensitive to shifts in public attitudes that could threaten their party's national image or standing in more closely contested parts of the country.

Comparing today's 232-seat Republican majority with the 236 seats Republicans ultimately held after special elections and party switches from 1995-96 underscores the extent to which GOP legislators have succeeded in fortifying themselves into homogeneously conservative districts. On every measure, Republicans today represent constituencies that lean more lopsidedly toward their party.

Infographic

On average, Clinton in 1992 won 46.6 percent of the two-party presidential vote in the districts held by congressional Republicans during the 104th Congress from 1995-96. (That two-party calculation excludes the share carried by Ross Perot in his independent bid that year.) President Obama last year carried only an average of 40.4 percent of the two-party presidential vote in the districts held by the current Republican majority.

Back in 1995, 79 House Republicans represented districts that backed Clinton in the previous presidential election; just 17 House Republicans now represent districts that Obama won. Fewer Republicans now hold districts that fall into an even broader definition of competitiveness:  In 1992, Republican President George H.W. Bush won 55 percent or less of the two-party presidential vote in 141 of the 236 House Republican districts. Now, only 71 House Republicans, roughly half as many, represent districts where 2012 nominee Mitt Romney won only 55 percent or less.

All of this means that the personal electoral incentives for most House Republicans would encourage more — not less — confrontation as the standoffs proceed, notes Gary C. Jacobson, an expert on Congress at the University of California (San Diego). "The electoral threat of them angering anybody outside of their base is pretty low," he says.

Pressure on Republicans to resolve the standoff without a sustained shutdown or default, he says, is less likely to come from fear of reprisal by voters than "institutional pressure" from the party's core financial supporters in business and the investment industry. "The people I expect to make a difference in this are the Republican finance and corporate types who will be very, very unhappy, and that segment of the Republican Party that is responsive to them will force the House to [relent]," he said. "I think that's the only way out of this."

The same trend toward more protected districts emerges from another measure of partisan competition, The Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index. That index uses presidential voting results to assess each congressional district's generic partisan strength relative to national trends.

In 1995, the average district held by House Republicans pointed to a GOP advantage of roughly 6.6 points on the Cook index. Now, that's increased by about two-thirds, with the average for House Republicans standing at a GOP advantage of 11.1.

Beyond those averages, the PVI data also show that the share of House Republicans in overwhelmingly safe districts has soared, while the portion in even marginally competitive seats has plummeted. In 1995, 12 House Republicans represented ruby-red districts whose index score leaned toward the GOP by at least 20 points; now 24 represent such districts. In 1995, 25 House Republicans represented districts with a Republican-leaning index score of at least 15; now 61 represent such districts.

Conversely, back then, more than two-fifths of the Republican caucus (105 members in all) represented at least somewhat competitive seats with a Republican-leaning index score of 5 points or less. Today only about one-fifth of Republicans (53 in all) represent districts so closely balanced.

The risk for the GOP is that such insulation will leave the House inured to potential damage to the party's overall image from any shutdown or default. Results over the past week from the United Technologies/National JournalCongressional Connection Poll, a CBS/New York Times survey, and a CNN/ORC poll have consistently found that around three-fifths of adults oppose shutting down the government to pursue changes in the health care law, with some indications that number may be rising as the standoff proceeds.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a former political scientist, says that the proliferation of safe GOP seats means that even if Republicans receive most of the blame for a shutdown, as polls suggest, "in these individual districts maybe that's no problem; maybe it's actually to their electoral benefit." If there is an electoral cost for the GOP, he argues, it will come through alienating the swing voters they need to win statewide elections in closely contested states like North Carolina. "This may be just fine for individual Republicans in gerrymandered seats, but it isn't fine at all for [the party's] national ambitions," he said. Speaking of his home state of North Carolina, he added: "This certainly enhances the ability to flip [the ] governorship in 2016, and the same thing applies to the presidency."

But veteran GOP pollster Glen Bolger, in a blog post Monday, warned that his party may face the opposite risk of demobilizing their core supporters if they concede without exacting any concessions from Obama. "Republicans have to get something tangible from this, or the base will be devastated going into 2014," Bolger wrote. "That does not mean no compromise — last I looked, the Democrats control two-thirds of the power in D.C., so the GOP is not going to get everything it wants. But neither should the Democrats expect to get everything they want either."

David Wasserman and Ben Terris contributed to this post.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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