Web site bugs or not, Obamacare will be a problem for swing-state Democrats in 2014

October 25, 2013

The news of the day is that the Obama administration has pledged to have the problems with HealthCare.gov fixed by the end of November, an announcement that will likely settle the nerves of many Democratic politicians regarding the potential political reverberations of the Web site not working as an election year dawns.


Bugs.

But, those same politicians would do well to remember the words of President Obama earlier this week: "Let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a Web site. It's much more." Now, Obama meant to make the point that problems with the Web site don't equal problems with the broader law, which he defended as a good product. But, then the opposite is also true: Fixing the Web site doesn't cure the deeper problem with the law politically speaking, which is that more people view it unfavorably than see it in a favorable light. And that fact hasn't changed in a very long time.

Check out the long term trend lines as documented by the Kaiser Family Foundation polling:

Image courtesy of Pew.
Image courtesy of Pew.

For the last two-plus years, approval for the law has hovered in the mid to high 30s while disapproval has been in the low to mid 40s. No matter what happens, the numbers don't move all that much. And, it's not just in the overall sample where the lack of movement over time is noticeable. Here's that same Kaiser trend line split by party identification:

Image courtesy of Pew
Image courtesy of Pew

Republicans have never liked the law much. Democrats' once-sky-high support has fallen somewhat, with roughly two-thirds of Obama's party viewing the law favorably now. Just one in three independents feels favorably about Obamacare in the latest Pew monthly poll, and, as importantly, that number has risen above 40 percent only twice since the spring of 2011.

What the consistency of those numbers suggests -- particularly among electorally critical independents -- is that whether or not the Web site gets fixed by the time the Obama administration says it will, the opposition to the law is likely to stay approximately where it is now. (On the positive side for Democrats, if no external events have moved the health-care numbers to date, the uneven rollout of the site probably won't either.)

That's an issue for Democratic senators and House members running in states and districts where they need the bulk of independent voters as well as some Republican leaners to vote for them. And, it's why of the 10 Senate Democrats who have signed on to a piece of legislation that would delay the enrollment deadlines for Obamacare, four of them are the biggest Republican targets of 2014 -- Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) -- and a fifth, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The message from those Democrats is simple: Yes, we voted for Obamacare, but we won't simply march in lockstep with President Obama when it's obvious there are issues that need to be addressed with the law's implementation. It's a bit of a distancing act, a move made necessary by the political reality that running on Obamacare -- or even having it as one of the main pillars of a campaign -- is almost certainly a losing proposition in places like Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska, not to mention Democratic-held open seats in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana. As Juliet Eilperin noted in a Fix post earlier today, a state-by-state look conducted by Kaiser this spring showed that just 33 percent of Alaskans and Louisianans viewed the law favorably.

Whether or not the Web site gets fixed on the timetable the Obama administration laid out today then might be besides the point. The law itself is going to be a political burden for many of the Democrats listed above -- no matter what happens when on HealthCare.gov.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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