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Poll: Major damage to GOP after shutdown, and broad dissatisfaction with government

– The budget confrontation that led to a partial government shutdown dealt a major blow to the GOP’s image and has exposed significant divisions between tea party conservatives and other Republicans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey highlights just how badly the GOP hard-liners and the leaders who went along with them misjudged the public mood. In the aftermath, eight in 10 Americans say they disapprove of the shutdown. Two in three Republicans or independents who lean Republican share a negative view of the impasse. And even a majority of those who support the tea party movement disapprove.

Overall, the shutdown produced widespread political fallout. Dissatisfaction with Congress, elected officials and the workings of the political system have all increased. An overwhelming majority of Americans say the budget dispute damaged the U.S. economy and the nation’s image in the world. A sizable majority lack confidence that another crisis can be averted when the current agreement runs out early next year.

Congressional Democrats also sustained damage to their image. More than six in 10 respondents disapprove of how they handled budget negotiations, and unfavorable ratings of the party have risen to a record high of 49 percent. Still, President Barack Obama’s overall favorability ratings have held steady. Almost half of all Americans approve of the way he has handled his job, and an almost identical number disapprove.

There was little in the findings for the GOP to feel good about. The party’s image has sunk to an all-time low in Post-ABC surveys, with 32 percent of the public saying they have a favorable opinion and 63 percent saying they have an unfavorable view. Almost four in 10 Americans have a strongly unfavorable view of the GOP.

The tea party fares just as badly. Barely a quarter of the public has a favorable image of the movement, the lowest rating in Post-ABC polling.

The shutdown occurred after Republicans tried to add the defunding of Obama’s health-care law to a short-term measure to keep the government running, then followed with other proposals that were rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate and the president. Only when facing a deadline over the government’s ability to borrow money to pay past bills was there an agreement to end the shutdown and allow borrowing until early next year.

Asked who they consider responsible for the impasse, 53 percent of poll respondents cite Republicans, 29 percent blame Obama and 15 percent fault both sides equally. Republicans who support the tea party movement overwhelmingly blame Obama for what happened, but among Republicans who do not back the tea party, almost as many cite congressional Republicans as name Obama or both.

Perceptions of the way Republicans handled the budget negotiations grew steadily worse through the weeks of confrontation, rising from 63 percent disapproval on the eve of the 16-day shutdown, which began Oct. 1, to 77 percent disapproval by the time it ended. Three in five Republicans disapprove of their party’s handling of the negotiations.

The Post-ABC poll showed how badly divided Republicans are over the tea party. Among those who back the movement, 75 percent say they have a favorable opinion of it. Among those in the GOP who don’t support the tea party, 64 percent have an unfavorable view.

Republican divisions also were evident when people were asked whether they approved of the way GOP lawmakers affiliated with the tea party handled the negotiations. Seventy-three percent of non-tea-party Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said they disapproved, while 55 percent of tea party supporters said they approved.

The findings foreshadow continued strife within the Republican coalition, as establishment and tea party wings vie for superiority. What the survey cannot predict is how the damage to the GOP will affect its chances of winning control of the Senate or holding its House majority in 2014. Democrats have an eight-point advantage in House races among voters nationally, according to the poll, but based on history, that lead is not predictive of a change in House majority.

The confrontation has had a corrosive effect on attitudes about the direction of the country, the workings of government and the image of elected officials. The percentage of Americans who say the United States is seriously off track rose from 60 percent in July to 68 percent today - the highest in more than a year.

Overall approval of Congress stands at 12 percent in the new survey, with 85 percent disapproving - 70 percent strongly. That represents the most negative expression toward Congress in almost a quarter-century of Post-ABC polling. Congressional approval at the time of the last government shutdown, in 1996, was 31 percent.

In many ways, what has happened in the aftermath of the shutdown is a repeat of the damage that occurred two years ago after a long fight over raising the debt ceiling led to a messy and mostly inconclusive agreement.

Three-quarters of all Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way the political system is working, and four in 10 say they are very dissatisfied. That level of dissatisfaction is only a few points lower than it was in the late summer of 2011.

The percentage of those who expressed anger about the way the government is working is just as high as it was after the earlier debt-ceiling debacle. Today, nearly eight in 10 express some dissatisfaction with the way things are working in Washington and a third say they are angry. Republicans express more anger than Democrats, and tea party Republicans show the most.

Americans say that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are looking out more for themselves than the country, although they are more inclined to say that about the Republicans. Obama fares far better, with a bare majority saying that in general he is more interested in doing what is best for the nation.

Looking ahead, the poll found that almost nine in 10 Americans consider the shutdown a sign of broader problems in the political process in Washington. Percentages almost as large say the shutdown hurt the U.S. image in the world, damaged the morale of federal employees and harmed the economy.

A bare majority supports the agreement to end the shutdown, which included a Republican decision not to try to change the health-care law. On this question, majorities of Republicans and Democrats take opposite sides, with a majority of Republicans saying they oppose the deal - although more than a third support it.

Congress and the president could be back at an impasse early next year if budget negotiators cannot find a long-term resolution. Just over a quarter of all Americans expressed confidence that the two sides will be able to agree, with most of them saying they are just “somewhat” confident. The rest are more pessimistic, and four in 10 say they are not at all confident that another crisis can be avoided.

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The poll was conducted by telephone Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 17-20, among a random sample of 1,002 adults. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish on landlines and cellphones. The results have a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.

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Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

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