The government might shut down. Do Americans care?

We have fewer polls on the topic than in past shutdowns.

September 29, 2023, 3:49 PM
Polls suggest that plenty of Americans aren’t closely following news of the potential shutdown.
Polls suggest that plenty of Americans aren’t closely following news of the potential shutdown.
ABC News Photo Illustration

The news of the day is the looming government shutdown, but our question isn't necessarily how Americans are thinking about it — it's whether Americans are thinking about it at all.

If the government does shut down when funding runs out on Oct. 1 — which seems likely — it would be the fourth government shutdown in 10 years. That's frequent enough that Americans could be forgiven for starting to treat them as routine events rather than crises (despite the impacts they have on people and programs) and stop paying close attention to them. Indeed, in the run-up to this shutdown, pollsters have seemed less interested in the topic than in the past. And the few polls we do have suggest that plenty of Americans aren't closely following news of the potential shutdown, although it's unclear how that compares to past shutdowns.

Polls aren't asking about the shutdown

In the weeks leading up to the 2013 government shutdown, pollsters had all sorts of questions for voters: How closely were they following the news around a potential government shutdown? Was it ever OK to threaten a government shutdown as a negotiating tactic? Who was to blame? Were people frustrated? And the list goes on.

However, three shutdowns later, that curiosity has diminished.

Back in 2013, eight polls asked Americans how they were feeling about a potential government shutdown in the two months before funding ran out, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research's archive. Leading up to the January 2018 shutdown, there were 10. But so far this year, as of Friday, Sept. 29, only two polls have been released that meet the Roper Center's standards, according to 538's research: one by Monmouth University and another by ABC News/The Washington Post.

What we can learn from the polling we do have

Even though we haven't seen many Roper-approved polls, we have seen a handful of online and partisan surveys that provide data on how closely Americans are following the news out of Washington, D.C., and most show that a majority of Americans are aware of the potential of a shutdown. According to a Sept. 21-25 poll from Navigator Research, a Democratic firm, 26 percent of registered voters said they had heard or seen "a lot" about a potential shutdown, and 34 percent said they heard "some" about it.

A poll by the Partnership for Public Service conducted Sept. 6-12 asked a few questions as well, including how concerned Americans were about a possible shutdown. Fifty-seven percent said they were concerned, while 39 percent said they weren't concerned and 4 percent said they weren't sure. When asked whether the shutdown would "have an impact on me personally," 54 percent said yes, 35 percent said no and 11 percent said they weren't sure.

And a Sept. 15-20 ABC News/Washington Post poll asked Americans whom they would blame for a potential shutdown. Helpfully, they've asked a similar question at least twice before: in 2018 and in 2011. (In April 2011, the government was on the brink of its first shutdown in 15 years before then-President Barack Obama and Congress agreed on a short-term resolution.) And since 2011, while blame has ping-ponged between the two parties, there has been a minor uptick in the share of respondents who had no opinion, a potential indicator of disengagement. In 2011, a few weeks before the government would have shut down, 4 percent of respondents said they had "no opinion" on whom to blame, compared to 5 percent in 2018 and 8 percent in 2023.

Of course, that means that the vast majority of respondents did — and still do — have an opinion on the shutdown. But that doesn't necessarily indicate that the vast majority are engaged in the news of a potential shutdown. Thanks to partisan polarization, it's easy for Americans to provide a default opinion on who's to blame for a problem based on political bias without paying much attention to the issue at hand.

For example, Monmouth University asked Americans this month who would be most responsible for a potential shutdown. Forty-eight percent said President Biden or Democrats in Congress, while 43 percent said congressional Republicans. The same share of the vote also said that Biden is "not really concerned with looking out for the economic well-being of average Americans." So those numbers might be a better indicator of respondents' political party preference than actual engagement with the issue.

Finally, when given the option to blame both parties equally, plenty of people take it: 23 percent in the Navigator poll and 40 percent in an early September poll from Data for Progress, another progressive firm. While some of these respondents probably do genuinely think both sides could be doing more to reach a deal, some of them probably also chose that option because they're not closely following the ins and outs of negotiations.

It's hard to find historically comparable polls

It sure looks like plenty of Americans are aware of the shutdown, even if they aren't paying much attention to it. But do polls also show that the public is paying less attention to this shutdown than previous ones? That question would be a lot easier to answer if we had tracking polls — polls from the same pollster that asked the same question over regular intervals of time — rather than the smorgasbord that's actually available to us, but let's see what we can ascertain.

A week before the 2013 shutdown — spurred by a battle between congressional Republicans and Obama over funding for the Affordable Care Act — there were at least a half dozen polls asking specific questions about it. Two of those polls — one conducted by Pew Research, the other by CBS News and The New York Times — found that about 60 percent of Americans were "closely" watching the news surrounding a potential government shutdown. That's more than Navigator found this year, although it's worth remembering that different methodologies and question wordings make this an apples-to-oranges comparison.

At the time, Pew had already been tracking Americans' opinions on budget and debt showdowns for years. One week out from the near-shutdown in 2011, Pew found that 30 percent of Americans were watching the proceedings "very closely." Two years later, when the government was once again on track to miss its funding deadline, 36 percent of Americans were watching the news in the preceding days "very closely." In between, there were also a series of other fiscal debates: in 2011 over the debt ceiling, in 2012 over the so-called "fiscal cliff" and in 2013 over sequestration. In the weeks ahead of each, Pew found that the share of Americans following them "very closely" ranged from 25 to 40 percent. That's closer to the Navigator poll from this year.

The next shutdown wouldn't occur until January 2018. And, for the most part, it seemed like Americans were invested in those proceedings. In one early poll by Pew Research, conducted Nov. 29-Dec. 4, 2017, 78 percent of Americans said that the possibility of a federal government shutdown in the next few weeks was either "very important" or "somewhat important." But polls also found a stubborn share of respondents who just didn't seem that interested. In multiple polls that asked various questions about the January 2018 shutdown, 10 to 20 percent of Americans responded that they didn't know, didn't have an answer, or thought it wasn't important. And when Quinnipiac University asked registered voters whether the shutdown would make them more or less likely to vote for a Democrat, 53 percent said there would be "no impact."

There were far fewer polls when a second shutdown loomed later in 2018, but the data we do have doesn't show a major shift in public opinion from the first shutdown that year. When Suffolk University asked in December 2018 whether registered voters supported or opposed the shutdown, 14 percent said that it "makes no difference to me either way." And when Quinnipiac asked who was to blame for the shutdown — Trump and congressional Republicans, or congressional Democrats — 12 percent of adults said they didn't know or didn't provide an answer.

So, what does this tell us? Unfortunately, not much, beyond that it might be helpful for pollsters to add a standard pre-government shutdown poll to their repertoires. It seems like some shutdowns over the years have captured the public's imagination more than others — but it's impossible to know for sure without better data.

Mary Radcliffe contributed research.