One of the biggest myths about government shutdowns is that presidents usually win.
This may explain why President Donald Trump threatened to continue the shutdown for months, even years. However, a poll conducted in the first week of January shows that 51 percent of adults believe Trump is to blame for the shutdown.
There have been 18 shutdowns since 1977. I found that in the nine longest shutdowns during that time, presidents lose an average of 3 percentage points of public support or approval during a government shutdown of four or more days.
Most presidents lose shutdowns
In only two of the nine cases that I looked at did a chief executive boost his numbers. Jimmy Carter inched up a percentage point or two in 1977 and 1978 during the government shutdowns that took place during his presidency.
In the seven other cases, the shutdown led to declines in public approval of the president. And in the majority of cases, the president’s party lost the next presidential election.
The clearest example is President George H. W. Bush. In 1990, this GOP president was riding a 66 percent approval rating after the successful Operation Desert Shield (when we sent U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to deter an attack by Iraq) and a long period of economic growth.
Some of this may have been the result of Bush approving tax increases to close the budget deficit, which broke one of his campaign pledges of “no new taxes.”
But images of closed federal facilities didn’t help, giving voters the appearance of Bush presiding over gridlock. This hurt him in the 1992 election, when voters agreed with Democrats that Bush’s policies led to legislative deadlock.