The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obamacare will likely help Republicans in 2014. But, 2016 is a different deal.

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The monotony of a never-ending campaign can be intense. Political candidates and the outside organizations that support them start airing ads and shaking hands earlier and earlier in the election cycle, trying to win the hearts of constituents before their opponents can even try, and voters get thoroughly fed up from listening to the same old platforms over and over again. This is especially true when your never-ending campaign consists of one issue, as it does for Republicans so far in 2014. The general election hasn't even begun, and Americans have heard thousands of reasons they should think of Obamacare when heading to the polls in November.

In congressional floor speeches in March, the word "Obamacare" was uttered 293 times. Unemployment was only mentioned 42 times. When Gallup asked what respondents considered the most important problem facing the country earlier this year, these two topics tied for third, behind "dissatisfaction with government" and the "economy in general." Americans for Prosperity has already spent tens of millions of dollars running ads blasting Democratic incumbents for supporting Obamacare in Arkansas, Michigan, Louisiana, North Carolina, Colorado and New Hampshire.

"We do want to make sure that Obamacare is the number one issue in the country," AFP President Tim Phillips told CNN earlier this month. Most Republicans seem to agree.

This early in the election, any statements of how successful such a blindered strategy has been are premature. If nothing else, Republicans have done a mighty good job of getting everyone to connect the midterms to Obamacare in their head. A quick Nexis search shows that more than 2,000 articles have mentioned Obamacare and the midterms in the past month — with conservative news publications The Washington Examiner and Washington Times leading the way.

However, all this talk about Obamacare and the midterms hasn't proved a constant boon to Republican campaigning. Sign-ups on the health-care exchanges topped 8 million, which led President Obama to ask Democrats to try and campaign on their vote for the Affordable Care Act instead of staying silent on it. Although many residents in states with close Senate races don't like Obamacare, they also want Congress to fix it instead of trying to repeal it. Some Republicans, like Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, are starting to echo those voters. Stories about the midterms are questioning assumptions about whether Obamacare will escort Republicans to a Senate majority. CNN asked seven days ago, "Will GOP’s focus on Obamacare pay off in 2014 midterms?" Brian Beutler at the New Republic wrote on Thursday, "Republicans Have a Good Map. That Doesn't Mean Obamacare's a Winning Issue." Jonathan Chait wrote for New York Magazine last night, "Maybe the Election Won’t Be About Obamacare After All."

All these early Obamacare ads might not matter in the end, either. We put a lot of faith in the power of a political ad to change minds, but voters have short attention spans. Ads need to keep playing to work any small bit of magic, and who knows how the election and Obamacare could change in the next few months — or how Democratic outside groups and campaigns will choose to spend their ad dollars.

So, has this Obamacare obsession been all in vain? Probably not. Regardless of any changes in the political climate or reordering of policy preferences in the upcoming months, Republicans are heading into November with a number of colossal advantages. During a president's second midterm election, his party almost always suffers. Midterm elections are also dominated by older, whiter voters. The Republican Party is now dominated by older, whiter voters. The Democratic Party's most reliable demographics — younger people and minorities, usually stay home in off-year elections. When you narrow down 2014 to the people most likely to cast ballots, the focus on Obamacare starts to make a lot more sense.

According to Gallup polling data, Republicans are 17 times more likely to disapprove of the Affordable Care Act than Democrats. Whites are four times more likely to dislike Obamacare than nonwhites.

Sixty-four percent of registered Republican voters say Obamacare is "very important" to their vote, according to the Pew Research Center.

78 percent of Republicans disapprove of the Affordable Care Act, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll.

A Pew poll from December showed 53 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters were very excited about voting in 2014. For Republicans, 2014 is all about making sure these people stay excited enough to follow their data-driven destiny to their polling station. If Republicans can get everyone who already strongly supports their agenda to vote, they win the numbers game, swing voters not required or included. And the party decided a long time ago that Obamacare was the best way to do that.

Was it the most brilliant idea? No, but, the Republicans never needed the most brilliant idea, given their deep-set advantage. The real problem with scripting the entire 2014 election advance a la "Revolution 9," repeating "Obamacare" over and over again until we all get motion sickness from spinning around in circles, is that it isn't very forward thinking. Republicans' built-in advantage in 2014 means that they have a little leeway to expand their platform in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election — something a few potential 2016 Republican candidates, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul,  mention trying all the time — letting new voters sample what they could offer, experiment with their image and see what works and doesn't on a smaller stage. Instead, they went narrow, picking the one strategy that was most likely to appeal to the people they already won over to the exclusion of everyone else. Republicans may have a more favorable view of Republicans than the country writ large, but that won't win them the White House in an election where young, minority and low-income voters return. A Gallup poll published April 17 shows that 71 percent of Americans trust Republican leaders in Congress a little or almost none when it comes to the economy. A Pew poll from December shows 35 percent of the country has favorable opinions of the party. After a year of campaigning mostly on erasing a policy instead of campaigning on new ones, they aren't doing much to change perceptions in the long term.

There's still plenty of time to diversify topics before campaigning speeds up — and as Congress returns from recess to perhaps talk about immigration and privacy — but the Republican leadership has signaled they have no intention to change course even as Obamacare's fate improves and Republican politicking occasionally keeps constituents from health care. Candidates at the presidential and congressional level two years from now are unlikely to thank them.


"Women could be critical to key races, and both parties are going all out to get their votes" — Reid Wilson, The Washington Post

"Democrats See Doomed Minimum-Wage Plan as Election Boost" — Siobhan Hughes, The Wall Street Journal

Correction: This article originally stated that Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was a Democrat. She is a Republican.