What to make of all the polls on the government shutdown? You know, the ones that say that, to varying degrees, congressional Republicans are being blamed more than Democrats and Barack Obama.
Let me give a roundabout answer, based on a theory that people sometimes try to send messages through their responses to poll questions. I developed this theory after watching British political polls since the 1960s.
For the large majority of that time — the major exception was the first eight years of Tony Blair’s prime ministership — voters have given negative job ratings to the governments of the day. Yet during that time, incumbent parties have won most general elections.
This is not necessarily a contradiction. Britons, with their two-and-a-half party system (the Liberal Democrats are the half), are adept tactical voters. If they live in a district where Lib Dems are stronger than Labor, then Laborites will vote Lib Dem to keep the Conservatives out.
In responding to polls, British voters who fear the government may go too far will express disapproval as a way of checking the prime minister’s theoretically dictatorial, but in fact limited power. Backbenchers will pressure the PM not to go too far if his or her job approval is low.
In our two-party system, Americans seldom vote tactically. But I think they sometimes respond to polls tactically.
That helps explain why Bill Clinton’s job approval went up 20 points when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and Republicans threatened impeachment. That looks like a plea to Republicans to drop impeachment.
Americans believe in the Twenty-Second Amendment, limiting the president to two terms. Clinton had been elected to a second term and was competently performing his day work. Let him serve that term out, voters seemed to be saying.
So it may be helpful to look at government shutdown polls in a similar light.
Many polls ask which side will be or is more to blame for the shutdown. Pluralities blame Barack Obama over Republicans (there’s some difference in question wording) — 39-36 and 38-30 (Pew), 44-35 (CBS), 42-32 (Fox News). When asked whether Republicans or the Obama administration is more to blame, it’s Republicans, 39-36 (National Journal).
A general rule in polling is that individuals are more popular than groups of people — especially groups of politicians. That Obama has only a small lead, and the Obama administration a statistically insignificant deficit, does not signal great presidential strength.
Note too that one-fifth to one-quarter are not sure. And when given the option of “both equally,” 58 percent choose that (Quinnipiac).
Acting like a responsible adult or a spoiled child? Spoiled child for Republicans in Congress, 69-25 (CNN/ORC). Responsible adult for Obama — but only by a 49-47 margin.
Clear majorities prefer that politicians compromise rather than stick to principle, majorities large enough that many people are not sticking to party lines on this.
One can argue that the same voters who re-elected a Democratic president and returned a Republican House are not entitled to complain when each refuses to give in. Each side is acting out of principled conviction.
But one can also argue that each side has made blunders. House Republicans started by refusing to fund the government without defunding Obamacare — a result Democrats surely would never permit and which large majorities in polls oppose.
In response, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have flatly refused to negotiate. The administration has tried to block World War II veterans from visiting their open-air memorial.
Democrats believe that a shutdown would be politically disastrous for Republicans. But the 1995-96 wasn’t, and back then Bill Clinton made a great show of negotiating.
Obama’s refusal to negotiate is less attractive. It is stunning that 47 percent of Americans say that a twice-elected president is behaving like a spoiled child rather than a responsible adult.
Elections are zero sum games: One side must win. Knock down the other guys sufficiently and you will.
Partisan struggles like this are not: Both sides can lose ground, as happened after grand bargain negotiations collapsed in August 2011.
The message I hear voters sending through their poll responses is that both sides are not acting competently. They’re not doing their job.
Members of Congress can survive politically even when voters think congressional leaders are incompetent.
But perceptions of incompetence can weaken and cripple a president.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.