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What effect did health-care reform have on election?

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 9:57 PM

The 2010 midterm election was clearly a referendum on the state of the economy and Democratic-led Washington's handling of it.

But how much did the health-care law passed this year have to do with Republicans winning back the House and gaining six seats in the Senate? That is a point of considerable contention not just between strategists for the two parties but also within the Democratic Party itself.

In a memo written in the immediate aftermath of last Tuesday's election, the Democratic National Committee's communications director, Brad Woodhouse, argued that exit polling showed health-care reform was - at worst - a neutral factor for the party. Among the numbers he cited: Just 18 percent said the issue was the most important one facing Congress (62 percent said the economy), and Democrats carried that group by eight percentage points. He also noted that of the 12 Democratic senators seeking reelection who voted for the health-care legislation, only two lost: Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.).

"Of all the factors that contributed to Republican gains in the congressional elections, the President's healthcare reform does not appear to have been the significant drag on Democratic candidates," Woodhouse wrote.

Bill McInturff, who handled polling for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential contest, disagrees. And, in two surveys - one in mid-October and one on the day of the election - McInturff found considerable evidence that seems to contradict the exit data.

Seven in 10 voters in these districts said they had seen some television advertising about the health-care law, and, of that group, 70 percent said the ads they remembered had opposed the legislation. In the Election Day survey, 45 percent described their vote as sending a message of opposition to President Obama's health-care law, while 28 percent said they voted to show support for the plan and 27 percent said their vote was neither in support nor or in opposition.

Among respondents in the 100 most targeted House districts, 51 percent called their vote a message of opposition to the law, while just one in five said it was a sign of support for it. A majority of independent voters, a voting bloc that Republicans won by a whopping 18 points, also said in the McInturff survey that their vote was in opposition to the law.

"This election was a clear signal that voters do not want President Obama's health care plan," McInturff concluded in a memo summarizing the results and provided to the Fix.

Several Democratic strategists intimately involved in House and Senate races this fall said the truth of health-care law's impact on the 2010 midterms lies somewhere between Woodhouse and McInturff's views.

Health-care reform "had an impact because the number one issue on Tuesday, by far, was the economy, and by focusing so much attention and resources and political capital on health care, Democrats were not perceived as focused on jobs and the economy," said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster. "It is not correct to say Tuesday's vote was a referendum on health care, but it did help set the stage for Tuesday."

A senior Democratic strategist who has worked closely with the White House and congressional races, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, agreed that although health-care reform was not the entire electoral puzzle, it clearly was a piece.

"The successful Republican national narrative was one of overspending, overreaching Democrats," the strategist said. "The election wasn't a referendum on health-care reform, per se. But there is no question it played a role in the overarching narrative."

The debate is not an insignificant one, as the health-care law - particularly the back-and-forth over whether to try to repeal it - will be at the center of the legislative fight when Republicans assume control of the House in the 112th Congress. And, nearly every Republican contemplating a 2012 presidential bid has been an outspoken critic of the legislation, meaning that it will be a centerpiece of the eventual GOP nominee's argument against the sitting president.

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