Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) — Yes, it’s the middle of the week, but it’s not too late for a little Monday Cranky Blogging, especially when some journalist is being especially obtuse. This time? It’s Josh Kraushaar, who is absolutely certain that Obamacare is going to be a major electoral factor in 2014.
How does he know? Well, he notes that the Affordable Care Act is unpopular, and it’s certainly correct that Obamacare polls badly. While there are months to go until November, it’s also true that the ACA is a bit more unpopular recently than it was earlier.
But then it gets very, very, tricky.
There’s an enormous gap between “Obamacare polls badly” and actual voting outcomes in November 2014. Does “Obamacare polls badly” lead to voters casting ballots for Republicans when they otherwise would have voted for a Democrat? Or to Republican voters voting who otherwise would have stayed home? Or Democratic voters passing by the local polling station instead of voting? It’s not impossible that a single issue, such as Obamacare, will move votes. But it’s unlikely.
What does move votes? Partisanship, of course. Party identification is a major factor in vote choice, even for many of those who think of themselves as voting for a candidate, not a party. Incumbency, certainly. In House elections, challengers are often little known, with incumbents benefiting from their rivals’ anonymity. Presidential approval matters — candidates from the president’s party are helped or harmed depending on how voters believe the person in the Oval Office is doing. Those are the major factors.
So how would an issue such as the ACA factor into voter decisions? In two possible ways. One is that voters who don’t like the law would hold members of Congress directly responsible. Political scientist Gary Jacobson has demonstrated that if voters like (or dislike) something about a candidate, including perhaps the candidate’s issue positions or actions while in office, that it can have an effect beyond party and other factors. A team of political scientists found that voting for health care reform cost House Democrats about six percentage points in 2010, enough (all else being equal) to produce a roughly 25-seat swing to the Republicans. The other way is that the ACA might influence President Barack Obama’s popularity, which, in turn, can influence vote choice.
I’m a longtime skeptic of that 2010 finding — even though the authors are friends of mine whom I respect a lot. Why? Because the study can’t account for what is an important counterfactual: What would have happened had Democrats passed some other signature legislation along partisan lines in 2009 or 2010. In my view, any high-profile Democratic bill at that point would have been vigorously attacked by conservatives, with very similar consequences. Unfortunately, there’s no way to prove that one way or another.
As far as the electoral effects of Obama’s approval rating, surely any effect was long ago baked into this election. Indeed, it’s not clear that the bungled rollout of the ACA in October had any effect on Obama’s approval ratings. According to the polling average at Huffington Pollster, the president lost ground from his second inauguration up through mid-November, when his approval flattened out. At least, maybe. Look at the trend line that’s more sensitive to short-term changes (the “less smoothing” option), and it appears that Obama suffered accelerated losses for about five weeks ending in mid-November; since then, his approval has actually been recovering. And since October was also the month of the government shutdown and debt-limit scare, there’s really no way of disentangling what exactly hurt presidential approval at that point.
Kraushaar, however, assumes a hard link between what people say about an issue in a poll and how they make their vote choice. He also makes the classic mistake of hyping a special election; the press has done a pretty good job so far of refraining from claims that the upcoming election in Florida’s 13th congressional district will tell us anything about November 2014, but alas, Kraushaar goes all-in on the hype. And while early in his column he says that the difference between 2012 and 2014 is the facts, rather than the “quality of the messaging,” by the end of the column he winds up talking about the quality of the ads.
The truth about 2014 is that Republicans will likely do well in Senate races because they have excellent opportunities — Democrats are defending several seats in good Republican states, and midterm elections usually go against the incumbent party. The other important factor will be whether Obama continues to be mildly unpopular or if his approval ratings take a sharp turn in one direction or another. If that happens, however, the reasons will most likely have little to do with health care.
(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog)
Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr