By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — By a substantial margin, Americans disagree with the Republican argument that President Barack Obama’s healthcare law should be repealed and replaced, but several weeks of relatively good news about the law have done little to change entrenched, partisan views of it.
Those are the conclusions of two newly released public opinion surveys, one by a nonpartisan organization, the other by a leading Democratic polling firm. They suggest that the potency of GOP arguments against the law have waned, but that it continues to be a risk for Democrats in key congressional races, particularly in the South.
Nearly 3 in 5 Americans said they would prefer to see their representatives in Congress “work to improve” the healthcare law rather than “work to repeal the law and replace it with something else,” according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation healthcare poll.
Kaiser, which has surveyed public opinion about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, each month, found impressions of it warming slightly from the low points of November through January. Overall, however, opinions of the law remain negative, with 46 percent now having a generally unfavorable view of it and 38 percent generally positive, the poll found. Those views are sharply divided by party, as has been the case since the law passed.
A survey by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg found a similar division on the question of fixing the law versus repealing it. Among likely voters in competitive congressional districts, 52 percent say the country should “implement and fix the healthcare reform law” while 42 percent say they want to “repeal and replace” it, he found.
Compared with December, support for the “implement and fix” position has grown and sentiment for repeal has shrunk in the roughly 80 congressional districts that Greenberg surveys to analyze the battleground for this fall’s midterm election.
Independent voters in those districts, who favored repeal in December, now favor going ahead with the law, his polling indicated. Key Democratic constituency groups, such as college-educated women, have become more ardent in their support.
But one group stands out as bucking the trend: Voters in battleground districts in the South now support repeal by a bigger margin than they did in December, Greenberg found.
Southern opposition to the law could pose a significant problem for Democrats because three of the most competitive races in the battle for control of the Senate are taking place in Southern states: North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The battleground districts that were surveyed include very few from those three states, so the poll doesn’t shed direct light on the Senate contests. But it does reinforce what other polling has shown about the intensity of Southern opposition to Obamacare.
The Kaiser survey found that almost 6 in 10 Americans believe that the number of people signing up for coverage under the law fell below expectations, even though enrollments actually beat the forecasts by about 1 million people.
About 4 in 10 people in the survey correctly said that about 8 million people had signed up. Even among that group, however, about half said the result had been below expectations.
Partisan divisions had an effect on people’s beliefs about enrollment numbers. More than 1 in 8 Democrats significantly overestimated sign-ups while about one-third of Republicans significantly underestimated them. The number correctly choosing the 8 million figure was similar in both parties.
Those who correctly identified the number of enrollments were somewhat more likely to say the law was functioning as intended, but even among those who significantly overestimated enrollments, a majority said the law was still not working as planned.
The most reliable predictor of whether a person thought the law was working was not whether he or she could correctly identify the number of enrollments, but partisanship.
Almost 80 percent of Republicans said they believed “it’s clear the law is not working as planned.” By contrast, just more than 60 percent of Democrats took the opposing position, that “there were some early problems that have been fixed, and now the law is basically working as intended.”
Among those who remain uninsured, Kaiser found, about 40 percent said they had not signed up for coverage because of cost. Another 12 percent said they had tried to get coverage but were unable to. Only 7 percent said they would rather pay a fine than buy insurance coverage.
On another controversial aspect of the law, Americans by about 2 to 1 said they supported the requirement that health plans cover the costs of birth control. Support for that requirement was particularly strong among women and Democrats. Americans over 65 and Republicans were less likely to support it.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule later this spring on a challenge to the contraceptive requirement.
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