Will the Affordable Care Act hurt Barack Obama in November? Republicans today are gleefully circulating a new article by Susan Page that makes this case based on a new USA Today/Gallup poll, which finds that a majority of registered swing state voters thinks passage of health reform was a “bad idea” and that it should be repealed.
But I think it’s wrong to conclude from this that “Obamacare” will damage Obama in November. This conclusion misses the way that issues generally work in presidential elections.
The first point Page makes is the weakest: that ACA is responsible for “uniting Republicans in opposition” to Obama. In fact, it works the other way around. If Republicans are united against Obama’s various programs, including health care reform, it’s because they are already united against Obama. There’s never been any real question about whether Republicans would be unified against Obama this fall — no matter what he did or does.
Her second point: Health care reform is “eroding his standing among independents.” I think that’s probably wrong, too. For the most part, this sort of issue functions on the symbolic level (given that implementation is still mainly in the future). Far more likely is that this works the other way around, too: Independents in this poll overall appear to give Obama mediocre ratings, which they are also applying by extension to his signature legislative accomplishment.
What’s more, very few people in the poll report that health reform has had any effect on them personally, with 72% in swing states saying it has had “no effect.” I do expect that to change as the campaign goes on. Republicans will argue that every premium increase and every botched health care outcome is a result of “Obamacare,” while Democrats are going to highlight the popular elements of the law that have already been enacted. It is certainly possible that one of these messages will emerge as stronger once engaged. But it’s highly unlikely that today’s pre-campaign opinions predict that outcome.
Meanwhile, health reform is also being dragged down, according to this poll, by the widespread current belief that it’s unconstitutional. By the time fall arrives swing voters will presumably have paid a lot more attention to what the Supreme Court has to say about this than to whatever they’ve been listening to now.
What will drive swing voters’ views of health reform will be their overall feelings about the president, on the one hand, and millions of dollars in advertising, on the other. And even then, it’s not clear that attitudes towards it will be that crucial in motivating voters. It may be odd to think that even as important issue as health care reform won’t actually move very many votes, but that’s just how things work in partisan elections.