The American People: Winners, Losers or Both?

A number of our elected representatives have somberly proclaimed that there are no winners from the recent government shutdown and near-default. These utterances have not prevented pundits from weighing in with various lists of "winners" and "losers" anyway. In many instances, of course, it takes a significant period of time to determine the long-term consequences of these types of occurrences. So most efforts to assess the implications of the recent unpleasantness for all parties concerned are premature at this point.

I am willing to say, however, that the American people, whose interests we monitor and represent with our Gallup polling, are both losers and winners from the shutdown -- at this juncture.

Clearly we can identify trends in the data that show why the American people can be characterized as losers as a result of the shutdown.

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  • Americans lost out when their elected representatives in Washington -- for 16 days -- didn't heed their (Americans') desire to compromise rather than sticking stubbornly to principle.
  • Americans lost out when their elected representatives in Washington initiated the shutdown despite their (Americans') desire not to have a shutdown.
  • Americans lost because they saw their expectations about a rising standard of living hurt by the shutdown.
  • Americans lost because they became less confident in the U.S. economy.
  • Americans lost because their faith in their overall system of government began to dwindle.

And so on.

But in other respects, the public came out of this process a winner. And that's because the public was a major player throughout the shutdown and the rancor and the debate and the posturing and the wrangling. In many ways, Americans helped guide the process and steer it toward the conclusion they wanted. And that was generally as a result of public opinion polling.

In theory, of course, Americans were present at the debate by virtue of the men and women they elected to go to Washington and represent them, given that more than 300 million of us can't congregate to make decisions on every issue of the moment. That's representative democracy. But as noted above, that system of representation wasn't working very well in this situation.

So the public was also present in the debate by virtue of the steady stream of public opinion polling data that assessed Americans' insights, attitudes and wishes as the situation unfolded.

We have no accurate information on exactly how polls assessing public opinion affected the dynamics of the shutdown crisis, but it is reasonable to assume that elected leaders became highly cognizant of four key aspects of public opinion that continually surfaced in the process:

  1. the fact that Americans did not want the shutdown, premised or not on the basis of changing the Affordable Care Act
  2. the fact that Americans grew increasingly negative about the way in which their elected representatives were handling themselves in Washington both leading up to and during the shutdown
  3. the fact that the Republican Party's image was significantly damaged (at least on a temporary basis) during the 16 days of the shutdown, and
  4. the fact that Americans' faith in the governmental system and in the economy began to erode as the days went on

And it is reasonable to assume that these aspects of public opinion had a direct role in the thinking and ultimately behavior of the elected representatives sitting in Washington trying to figure out what to do.

The voice of the people as represented by polls was not always interpreted correctly, of course. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said Congress' decision to reopen government and raise the debt ceiling represented a refusal to listen to the American people. But that was most likely his extrapolation of Americans' negative tilt toward the Affordable Care Act into an assumption that the American people wanted government shut down until that law is repealed, defunded, or altered in highly significant ways. Most data does not confirm this extrapolation. Additionally, it's worth noting that some of Cruz's advisers also apparently gave him talking points intended to cast doubt on one poll released last week, which the senator repeated publicly, but these critiques were not well thought through and ended up doing little to mitigate the credibility of that poll.

It's also worth noting that President Obama may at the moment not be reading public opinion correctly. He put forth a new list of priorities for the government post-shutdown, including passing a budget, immigration reform, and a farm bill. But the number one priority from the public's perspective would be fixing the government itself and the way it works. If the president were to follow public opinion closely, he would convene meetings with government leaders from both sides in an attempt to fix the process and work out how government can actually function without coming to sporadic but regular standstills. The number one problem facing the country is government dysfunction, and according to the people, the focus now should first be on fixing that (see here) rather than immediately resorting back to a focus on specific issues.

Dr. Frank Newport is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup and writes the column, "Polling Matters." Copyright © 2013 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.

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