The White House is in the midst of a victory lap today following the news that 7 million people had signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act by the enrollment deadline Monday night. President Obama touted the sign-ups in remarks Tuesday afternoon, and White House press secretary Jay Carney was downright giddy during his daily press briefing.
But, there's little evidence to suggest that meeting the sign-up goal will fundamentally alter the politics of Obamacare prior to the November midterm elections.
Here's why: The law -- and before it became a law the legislation -- has been deeply politicized from the moment it appeared on the national landscape. Democrats liked it, Republicans loathed it. Nothing -- not any external event -- has changed that basic dynamic.
Gallup published a fascinating set of data today that drives home how incredibly polarizing the ACA is. Collecting almost 14,000 interviews conducted between August 2013 and March 2014, Gallup found that the single biggest predictor -- more than race, income, ideology, gender or education -- of how you feel about Obamacare is your party affiliation. And the numbers are staggering; a self-identified Republican is 17 times more likely than a self-identified Democrat to disapprove of the law. Seventeen times! (Independents are five times more likely than Democrats to disapprove of the law.)
The extraordinary importance of party identification in predicting a person's support for the legislation raises the question of whether the ACA can ever escape its polarizing branding and be accepted by policymakers -- present and future -- as settled law, rather than an ongoing political battle.
Here's the political reality: When you ask people about Obamacare, what they hear is you asking about Obama. As in, people are unable to separate their views about the law from their views about the president. And, in both cases -- like and hate -- those views are deeply held and essentially immobile.
And that's why the fact that the White House got 7 million people to sign up by the March 31 deadline isn't likely to move the political needle much, if at all, when it comes to the November election.
"This is no longer a campaign to convince voters that the ACA is good or bad, rather it's a battle between Democrats trying to turn out ACA supporters [versus] Republicans turning out opponents," argued Neil Newhouse, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm. "Intensity wins that battle, and for the last four years, intensity on this issue has been owned by the GOP."
The latest poll numbers from the Washington Post-ABC News on the ACA proves that point. Overall, 49 percent of people supported the law while 48 percent opposed it. But the improvement in those numbers came almost exclusively from Democrats feeling more positively about the law; support numbers from Republicans and independents were largely stagnant. And in that same WaPo-ABC poll, just 46 percent of Democrats strongly supported the law while 67 percent of Republicans strongly opposed it.
The fact that 7 million people signed up might improve Democratic enthusiasm for the law somewhat, but it won't dampen Republicans' dislike for it at all. That means that Republicans will still enjoy the intensity advantage when it comes to how Obamacare plays out in the election this fall.
"Sign-ups and Web site issues weren’t peoples' primary concern," acknowledged one veteran Democratic pollster. "They are worried about cancellations, rate increases, their doctor telling them it sucks, their employer saying it will increase costs so they can’t get a raise ... and sign-ups does nothing to address the real concerns."
From a policy perspective, the White House has every right to champion the 7 million enrollees under the ACA. But from a political viewpoint, don't expect the sign-ups to change much of anything.