Obamacare and the midterm-election enthusiasm gap

We’re seven months from the 2014 midterms, giving us time to cycle through a few dozen theories on what the election will be about. The Republicans still hope to capitalize on discontent with the Affordable Care Act, but TPM’s Dylan Scott wonders whether this “election elixir” is being overhyped: “a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation might bring the GOP’s certainty into question: 53 percent of Americans, including 51 percent of independents, say they’re tired of debating Obamacare and think that the country should focus on other issues. Even among Republicans, the numbers are almost evenly split: 47 percent are tired of the debate, while 49 percent think it should continue.”

But 49 percent of one of the two major parties is a lot! What else is going to galvanize Republican-leaning voters, opposing a hike in the minimum wage? (No, the GOP has to keep telling itself, business owners do not constitute a majority of the electorate, even in a midterm year.)

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Scott acknowledges that talking about Obamacare is a good way to get conservatives out to vote: “Polling has found that people who support repealing the law are more likely to say that they'll definitely vote and that health care will be a major factor.” And let’s not forget there are two court challenges that could still affect the law: one on religious exemptions to insurance coverage of contraceptives, and the other involving a literal reading of the law that could take away insurance subsidies from millions of people. If either case weakens (or essentially topples) the A.C.A., some proponents of the law may suddenly get motivated to vote.

The Obama administration is estimating that close to 7 million will have signed up for health insurance through the A.C.A. as of March 31, the end of the first open enrollment period under the law. This could be the beginning of a sizable political constituency.

Still, the opponents of Obamacare are likely to dominate at least one more election year. The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn writes that the GOP is committed to the narrative of Obamacare as a “catastrophic failure,” and if the enrollment figures are high, Republicans will simply refuse to believe the numbers — accusing the administration of “cooking the books,” as Wyoming Sen. John Barasso charged on Sunday. (“Meet the Obamacare truthers” is how MSNBC’s Dann McDormann linked to a story on Barasso’s comments.) A bit of conspiracy theory can only help fire up the Republican base this November.

Another survey released last week, this one by CBS News, supported the idea that conservatives are more motivated this year:

Seventy percent of Republican voters are already enthusiastic about voting in November (including 27 percent who are very enthusiastic), compared to 58 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile half of independents and four in 10 voters overall say they are not excited. In a disparity that would have a decisive impact if it remains in November, 81 percent of Republicans say they’re definitely going to vote in November, versus 68 percent of Democrats.

Democratic voters’ mixed feelings about Obamacare (the implementation, if not the concept), and frustration with the president on issues like immigration reform, are certainly factors here. But another possible explanation for this enthusiasm gap is that Democrats are simply less likely to live in states or districts that will see much action in this fall. California, New York, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington are among the deep blue states without competitive U.S. Senate or gubernatorial elections. Also, many Democratic voters are in urban or mostly black congressional districts where the re-election of incumbents is pro forma. As 538.com described them, “These hyper-partisan districts are far past the point where a Democratic candidate for Congress could lose under almost any circumstance, so they create wasted votes for Democrats.”

If the Republicans win control of both houses of Congress this fall, there will inevitably be handwringing about Democratic voters who didn’t come out to support the president, as well as complaints that Obama didn’t work hard enough to turn out younger and non-white voters. But high turnouts in the Bronx and East L.A. would have no effect on who controls Congress in the last two years of Obama’s term. Residents of such overwhelmingly Democratic areas may help salvage the president’s reputation by enrolling in health insurance, but their days of helping Obama in the voting booth are over.

Photo: Supporters of the administration's health care reform law demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington in June 2012. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

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