For Republicans, Obama’s Obamacare news changes nothing

Yesterday, President Obama announced in a press conference that 8 million people have signed up for health insurance with the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges. Another 3 million Americans have signed up for Medicaid, while 5 million have signed up for non-exchange health plans. Three million young people have insurance under their parents' plans.

"This thing is working," Obama said. He went on to state that Democrats should "forcefully defend and be proud of" the law during midterms, a prospect the party has been skittish about.

 

"I don't think we should apologize for it, and I don't think we should be defensive about it," he said. "I think it is a strong, good, right story to tell. I think what the other side is doing and what the other side is offering would strip away protections for those families." His stern words for the GOP did not end there. "They said no one would sign up. They were wrong about that. They are wrong to try to repeal a law that is working."

Regardless of the new information, the Republican battle plans for 2014 are not about to change anytime soon. Conservatives have spent years crafting their argument against Obamacare, and built their entire midterm campaign around their displeasure with the specters of Obamacare their campaign has conjured. The fact that the Republican Party thinks Obamacare is their key to the Senate was clear far before today, but Obama's news conference cleared any doubts that new information would alter their strategy.

The negative responses to Obama's remarks were wide-ranging, yet thematically consistent.

For the Republican Party, new press releases from the Obama administration aren't a reason to despair. It provides a perfect opportunity to give their talking points maximum exposure. For the most part, Republicans don't need to persuade people that their belief in the complete failure of Obamacare is right. All they need to do is make their base -- which already has been conditioned to have a negative Pavlovian response to Obamacare -- angry enough to vote against the incumbents who supported the legislation.

Republicans already have an advantage this midterm election. Opposition parties almost always fare well during a president's second round of midterms.


Image courtesy of NCSL

On top of that, Republicans have acquired an advantage in midterm elections regardless of the party in the White House. As the Cook Political Report pointed out last year,

Midterm elections have always drawn older voters, and usually drawn white voters, to the polls in disproportionate numbers. Older voters are less transient, have grown deeper roots in their local communities, and pay much more attention to non-presidential elections than their younger counterparts. In the 1980s, that didn't hold partisan consequences.Today, that amounts to a built-in midterm turnout advantage for Republicans.

As long as Republicans can leverage their base, they stand a good chance of performing well this election cycle. And, likely after intense polling and focus groups, they've decided that the ideal rallying cry to do this is "Obamacare, grr!"

Despite the relatively sunny past month Obamacare supporters have had, it's not clear that Republicans are misguided in basing their electoral futures against this one policy that has had a bit of a comeback.

First, there is little correlation between a state's approval of the Affordable Care Act and how many people signed up for health insurance in that state. The latest polling on Affordable Care Act approval ratings were released on April 11 by Gallup. Kentucky residents have had an average Obamacare approval of 32 percent since 2010. However, the state was one of the biggest successes in signing up the uninsured. North Carolina also attracted many Obamacare sign-ups, yet average approval of the law is 38 percent. The law may continue to rack up successes, but they seem to be completely untethered to opinions of the law. This works to Republicans' advantage.

Another fact about Obamacare that helps Republicans, despite the national numbers that have been making the law look good? Many of the closest Senate elections are happening in states that didn't build their own exchanges or set up a partnership marketplace and didn't expand Medicare -- Kentucky excepted. Because of the decisions of state lawmakers, voters in these states didn't always benefit from the Affordable Care Act in the same way as the states that drove the large sign-up numbers announced yesterday. Harnessing the discontent of these voters is the number one reason that Republicans have no intention of backing away from their anti-Obamacare offensive.

It's also why Democrats in these close elections are unlikely to follow Obama's advice from yesterday and tell the "strong, good, right story" he would like them to. Americans for Prosperity and Republican candidates are already spending big against Obamacare in these states. Any mention of the health-care law by these Democratic candidates would increase attacks tenfold. For the near future, the only Democrats who are going to proudly bellow new Obamacare statistics -- as long as they stay promising -- are termed out or in safe seats.

The fact that more Americans have health insurance now is an unequivocally good thing, but this year's electoral politics has been exceptionally reticent to factor the Affordable Care Act's slowly changing fortunes into the debate.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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