“They’re all to blame!” That will be the dominant public outcry if state government shuts down tonight at midnight. Politically speaking, both Governor Mark Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature will lose public support. But here is why Republicans have more to lose:
NUMBERS. In Minnesota right now, there are more GOP legislators than DFL legislators. So if incumbents are voted out in 2012 because of frustration over the shutdown, Republicans simply have more seats to lose. It’s a numbers game, working against Republicans.
TIMING. Dayton doesn’t stand for reelection until 2014. Republican legislators have to face the voters in 2012, when memories of the shutdown will be fresher.
NATURE OF SHUTDOWN COVERAGE. News coverage of a government shutdown constitutes a sort of “Why Government Matters To Everyone 101″ class. Republicans work very hard to make citizens to think of “government” as a monolithic army of wasteful, overpaid and irrelevant paper pushers that doesn’t help anyone. A shutdown weakens their core message frame, because it spotlights essential and popular government services, and shows the more human side of the public sector.
INSTITUTIONAL MESSAGING DISADVANTAGE. A Governor has the executive branch’s famous “bully pulpit” to magnify his messages. Moreover, a Governor usually has a relatively unified message, because he is a single person with a single set of messages. That’s one of the reason’s Dayton’s approval rating is much higher than the Legislature’s. It’s much more difficult for a few hundred diverse Republican legislators to keep their message persuasive and unified. Because of this institition-based messaging advantage for Dayton, it will be more difficult for Republicans to win the shutdown message wars. Not impossible, but difficult.
UNPOPULAR BARGAINING POSITION. This is the biggest problem for Republicans. Polls show that the public overwhelminginly supports the approach Dayton is pushing – a balance of both spending cuts and a tax increase on the wealthiest citizens. It’s a 2-to-1 advantage for Dayton. The polls also show astoundingly low public support for the specific kinds of cuts Republicans are pushing most agressively – cuts of vulnerable citizens’ health care. Only 8% of Minnesotans support such cuts. Therefore, endless news coverage of the “cuts only” GOP position particularly hurts Republicans in the court of public opinion.
Again, no one wins from a shutdown. But Republicans have more to lose politically if an agreement isn’t reached.