December 9, 2013

Reading many of the prognostications for 2014, you’d think Obamacare is far and away the most dominant issue weighing on the minds of midterm-election voters. But the decent jobs report last Friday — coupled with the likelihood that Congress will reach a temporary deal lifting the sequester — suggest that next year, the economy may well matter more than the health care law.

Anxiety about the economy, to be sure, is running high in many polls, as is disapproval of the law. And it remains possible the law will fail over time, which would be a disaster for Dems. But economists appear to believe the recovery could gain steam next year, and if that happens — and if the law fares moderately well – the dynamic could change in unpredictable ways.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is running surveys in multiple contested Senate races, tells me his polling suggests that, whatever the very real dissatisfaction with the health law, the GOP push to repeal the law remains a minority position, and that the Dem message of “fix and improve” continues to poll better. More importantly, he suggests this could create a context in which an improving economy could mitigate the burden Obamacare is placing on Dem candidates, at least to some degree.

“Even in the red states, voters see repeal as wrongheaded — there are things about the law voters don’t want to give up on,” Garin says, though he declined to go into detail about the polling itself. “Even if people do feel concern and uncertainty about the Affordable Care Act, if they feel better about President Obama generally because they see the economy improving, that will mitigate a lot of concerns people feel about the ACA.”

It’s true, as political scientist John Sides’ research has demonstrated, that the health law played a key role in costing Dems a lot of seats in 2010. But it’s also worth noting that the economy was in terrible shape that year. By contrast, amid an improving economy in 2012, Dems won across the board despite Republican attacks over Obamacare — suggesting the possibility that the economy colors views of the law and perhaps plays a role in how large it looms in the minds of voters (with the economy tanking, anxiety about Big Government overreach could run higher).

If the economy picks up, Garin noted, “there will have been a demonstration that the ACA is consistent with an improving economy. That will be helpful. The more confidence people have in the president’s overall direction, the more confident they’ll likely have in generally staying the course with his signature accomplishment.”

The bottom line is Dems own the economy. And polls consistently show the economy is a higher voter priority than health care. If it picks up, that could shift the ground a bit in their favor, allowing them to fight on more favorable turf than the health law, Garin suggested. “There are other issues that could present a strong contrast, whether it’s the minimum wage or closing loopholes for the wealthy and corporations,” he said. “These are material for a very strong offense by Democrats, even in the redder parts of the country.”

MSNBC’s First Read crew had a good post this morning making similar points:

Friday’s solid job numbers were a reminder that there’s another issue could play a more powerful force in 2014 — a healing economy…How could an improving economy help vulnerable Democrats? Consider that stronger attitudes about the economy and nation’s direction could raise the president’s job-approval rating five, six, or seven points. Democrats’ chances next year are much better if Obama’s approval is in the high 40s than the low 40s.

On top of all this, if the law works out even moderately well, as Jonathan Bernstein has explained, it could mostly fall out of the headlines and recede as a voter concern. If so, the economy would become even more of a factor. Of course, the flipside of this is that if the recovery flat-lines or worse, then it’s serious trouble for Democrats, potentially mattering more than the dreaded impact of Obamacare, if such a thing is possible.

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