The news that the Justice Department had requested that the Supreme Court examine President Obama’s health care law means that a verdict from the nation’s highest court will likely come sometime next year — right in the heart of the 2012 race.
“Obamacare is going to be a big issue in the 2012 elections whether the Supremes decide it or not,” predicted Republican pollster Glen Bolger.
Democratic pollster Fred Yang responded that “while attitudes are fairly set this will be the exclamation point for the ‘pro’ or ‘con’ position....It will have an impact that way, and also by re-injecting the issue into the campaign dialogue.”
A look at polling on the issue makes clear that public opinion on it is remarkably stable.
The September Kaiser Family Foundation survey — our baseline for numbers on the issue — showed that 41 percent of people said they had a favorable view of the law while 43 percent said they had an unfavorable one. Two-thirds of Democrats see the law favorably while three quarters of Republicans view it unfavorably.
According to the Kaiser data, support for the law has been between 39 percent and 42 percent since October 2010 while opposition to it peaked at 50 percent in January but has since receded back into the low 40s.
Republicans point to that data as evidence that the law isn’t popular and isn’t going to get any more popular no matter what the Court does.
Democrats insist that looking only at that topline number is a mistake.
One Democratic strategist who closely tracks polling on health care made the case that peoples’ view of the law are entirely dependent on their view of President Obama; those who like him support it, those who don’t, well, don’t. (There’s also some portion of those who view the law unfavorably who wanted it to be more, not less, sweeping.)
The better question, this source argued, when it comes to gauging the public’s view on the health care law is whether or not people want to get rid of it.
A majority — 52 percent — in the September Kaiser poll said they want to keep the law as is (19 percent) or expand it (33 percent) while 37 percent said they either wanted the law repealed and replaced with a Republican alternative (16 percent) or repealed outright (21 percent).
While the general stability of the numbers surrounding health care suggest that no external event — even something as major as a Supreme Court ruling — will drastically alter public perception, there’s little doubt that how the ruling comes down will matter at least at the fringes.
A decision in support of the law could allow Obama to move beyond the debate over the politics of the law and into its specific provisions — many of which are quite popular.
Obama already uses the health care law in his stump speech in front of Democratic donors and activists; a victory at the Supreme Court level would likely mean that that type of rhetoric would get a broader (read: in front of independents and in swing states) airing.
A defeat for the law would further embolden opponents of it and raise questions about the President’s initial motivations and the process — an ugly one by any standard — that led to the law’s passage.
“If the Court rules that Obama overreached, I’d expect the numbers to get even worse,” said Republican pollster Chris Wilson. “The news coverage [will] give the Republican nominee a springboard to use [health care] as a campaign issue — one more example of Obama’s failed policies.”
One other factor to consider when trying to assess how major an issue health care will be next fall is who Republican nominate.
If former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney winds up as the Republican nominee, it’s hard to see Republicans going to hard at the health care law due to the fact that Obama himself has said the plan was based on something Romney signed into law in the Bay State.
Romney, for his part, has argued there are many differences between the two plans but it’s tough to imagine him spending too much time litigating health care in a general election.
If Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the nominee, on the other hand, it’s much easier to imagine health care at the center of a campaign based on the idea that the Obama Administration has repeatedly overreached in an attempt to broaden the influence of the federal government.
Democrats point out that Perry’s health care record in far from unassailable — more than six million Texans don’t have health insurance — and promise an aggressive education effort if the governor attacks on the issue.
Health care will play a role in how voters make up their mind in the 2010 election. But, don’t assume the Court’s expected ruling will fundamentally alter the political calculus on the issue. Many voters’ minds are already made up.