November 6, 2013
Ken Cuccinelli (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Ken Cuccinelli (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The insta-punditry on the Virginia outcome widely holds that Obamacare was the main reason Ken Cuccinelli came much closer than expected to winning. As Cuccinelli himself put it: “This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare. That message will go out across America.”

But what if Cuccinell’s stance on the health law was actually a liability to him?

That’s what victor Terry McAuliffe’s pollster, Geoff Garin, argued in an interview with me. The McAuliffe campaign tested Cuccinelli’s position and rhetoric on the health law and found it alienated more voters than it attracted.

The media narrative that Obamacare almost cost McAuliffe the race — see two examples right here — is grounded in its apparent narrowing in the run-up to election day, which coincided with the law’s rocky rollout. But Garin disputed the notion that the race tightened substantially. He noted that this impression was artificially created in public polls by by McAuliffe’s gains during the government shutdown, which inflated GOP negatives and temporarily obscured the underlying closeness of the race.

“With the exception of a brief spike during the government shutdown, Terry’s lead was never less than two points, and never greater than four,” Garin said of the campaign’s internal polling. “It was a stable race.”

Garin said the campaign specifically polled on Cuccinelli’s bragging point as the first attorney general to target the health law, and that it was a loser for him.

“We tested Cuccinelli’s brag that he was the first attorney general to sue to stop Obamacare,” Garin said. “That actually made more voters less likely to support him than more.”

This will strike commentators as impossible to believe. If a majority in Virginia disapproves of Obamacare, as the exit polls show, surely Cuccinelli’s call for repeal can only be a positive, right? Well, no, not necessarily. And that’s important. It turns on the idea that disapproval of the law does not necessarily translate into support for getting rid of it; that those who disapprove have multiple reasons for doing so; and that some want to give the law a chance to work anyway.

This distinction was borne out in the McAuliffe campaign’s polling, Garin says, adding that even among some of those who disapproved of the law, Cuccinelli’s position supported the Dem narrative that Cuccinelli is too extreme.

“A majority disapproved of the Affordable Care Act, but in Virginia, as elsewhere, we found that a lot of these voters want to fix the law,” Garin said. “Cuccinellis’ position on Obamacare actually supported what we were saying about him, which is that he was extreme and supported a national Tea Party agenda.”

Such impressions of Cuccinelli, Garin said, helped McAuliffe in key areas that decided the contest, i.e., “exurban counties like Loudoun, Chesterfield, and Fairfax,” where voters “saw Cuccinelli as far outside the mainstream, especially on women’s health issues, and saw Terry as someone who would govern from the center.”

Indeed, it’s worth speculating that, in light of the gender gap that helped McAuliffe, voter opinion on health care as an overall issue — and impressions of Cuccinelli’s approach to it – may have been about more than just Obamacare.

Garin is a Dem pollster, so factor that into your evaluation of the above. But remember that the nuances in public opinion he identified have long been evident in national polls. Indeed, it’s puzzling that folks reflexively translate disapproval of Obamacare into political advantage for Republicans who want to eliminate it. In the case of Virginia in particular, where the Obamacare Medicaid expansion was a major issue, this is symptomatic of a broader failing, as Alec MacGillis aptly points out:

I’m not sure when I last saw such a stark example of election spin and punditry floating away from the substantive reality of governing and its impact on actual people. There is no mention in these accounts of the greatly enhanced prospects for the Medicaid expansion in Virginia as a result of McAuliffe’s win…All we know right now is that after a very rough patch for the law, the guy who ran strongly in support of it beat a guy who was strongly opposed to it, in the most purple state in the country. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of working poor may get health insurance coverage. How removed from the reality of these people’s lives does one have to be to chalk up such a result as a loss for Obamacare?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.