No, Obamacare didn’t decide the Virginia election

November 6, 2013

The top lesson Michael Barone took from the Virginia gubernatorial election was that "the Obamacare rollout fiasco and Obama's lies hurt Democrats." Politico agrees. "Obamacare almost killed Terry McAuliffe," writes James Hohmann.


Not Obamacare's fault. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

These arguments outline an emergent consensus on the Virginia election, which holds that McAuliffe (D) would've won by 10 or 15 points if not for Obamacare's troubled launch.

Normatively, all this makes sense: The health law's awful rollout should be hurting Democrats right now. But like my colleague Greg Sargent, I don't see it in the numbers.

Barone and Politico offer the same piece of evidence to prove that Obamacare was behind McAuliffe's slim margin. "The exit poll showed Virginia voters opposed rather than favored it by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin," Barone writes. "Exit polls show a majority of voters — 53 percent — opposed the law," Hohmann says.

But that data point is better understood as evidence that Obamacare didn't play an unusual role in this election. The 45-53 split on Obamacare is pretty much the same split we've seen since the law's passage.

To make the comparison more direct, in the 2012 election, the exit polls showed that only 44 percent of the electorate -- and 47 percent of Virginia's electorate -- opposed repealing Obamacare altogether. Yet President Obama won reelection, Senate Democrats gained seats, and House Democrats got more votes than House Republicans.

So Obamacare almost lost the election for the Democrats despite being almost exactly as popular as it was in 2012? That's hard to believe. If anything, the surprise of the Virginia election is that Obamacare's approval was as high as 45 percent.

This has been a persistent finding of the polls on Obamacare: It's basically been exactly as popular -- and unpopular -- since it passed. The problems of its first month have had basically no effect on its standing in the polls. In fact, if anything, there's been a slight uptick in its popularity.

So why did McAuliffe's apparent lead collapse if it wasn't Obamacare? I don't know. Perhaps Republicans who didn't want to vote for Cuccinelli came home in the final days of the race. Perhaps pollsters misjudged the electorate that would ultimately turn out to vote.

But there's something about this conversation that's a little odd: McAuliffe was, by all accounts, a much worse candidate than President Obama running in an environment, and with an electorate, that was worse for Democrats than 2012. And yet he won Virginia by a single point less than Obama. He had some advantages Obama didn't have of course -- namely, money and a weaker challenger -- but McAuliffe's by three makes a lot more sense given Virginia's history and partisan leanings than McAuliffe by 12. I'm not sure there's much that needs to be explained here at all.

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