The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Democrats’ keep-it-but-fix-it Obamacare strategy is in need of repairs

The predominant Democratic Party line on Obamacare in 2014 is some version of this: "Let's keep the law, but let's fix it."

Since the health-care law is unpopular, but repeal is even less popular, this seems like a politically safe middle ground stance, right? Wrong. To understand why, consider what happened in Florida on Tuesday and the raft of recent polling pointing to trouble for Democrats on this front.

Obamacare was a central focus in Florida's 13th district special election campaign. Democrat Alex Sink and her allies pummeled now-Rep.-elect David Jolly (R) for wanting to repeal and replace the law. Jolly and the Republicans slammed Sink for wanting to preserve it. It all played out in a pretty evenly divided partisan district. And the repeal/replace candidate beat the fix-it candidate.

Being the fix-it candidate is not a very promising bet right now -- and not just in the Florida's 13th district. Negative intensity is outpacing positive intensity when it comes to how voters are associating the law with candidates for Congress.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that 47 percent of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports repeal -- like Jolly -- compared to 32 percent who say they are less likely. When it comes to candidates who support keeping and fixing the health-care law -- like Sink -- voters are split, with 45 percent saying they would be more likely to vote for such a candidate and 42 percent saying they would be less likely to do so.

Democrats blamed the Florida loss on an unfavorable electorate dominated by Republican voters. Turnout there in November will look very different, they said. They may well be right. But turnout is not determined in a vacuum. Republican voters were more enthusiastic about voting. That shouldn't be overlooked as Republicans have sought to use Obamacare as the No. 1 issue for turning out their base.

"I think the Affordable Care Act is an energizing issue for Republicans," Sink pollster Geoff Garin acknowledged to reporters Wednesday morning, even as he contended that Sink's loss was not because of Obamacare.

What's more, the repeal posture that Democrats claimed would be Jolly's undoing didn't prevent him from winning, even though Democrats routinely pointed to national polls that showed repeal was unpopular.

How to explain that? Part of the answer is that voters are more hostile toward candidates who support the law than the public as a whole.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that the public was split over whether it would make a difference if a candidate supports the health-care law, with 34 percent saying they would be more likely to vote for that candidate and 36 saying they would be less likely to do so. But among registered voters, 40 percent said they would be less likely to vote for that candidate; just 33 percent said they would be more likely.

As we wrote last week, Democrats may have the American public on their side on Obamacare. But that won't necessarily translate to wins at the ballot box.

Florida's 13th district special election was a sharp reminder of that.