Nearly everyone has a theory about how House passage of President Obama's health care reform package will affect the 2010 midterm elections.
For what it's worth, this health care fight has gone on so long and has been so vigorously debated that the public's battle lines are pretty much formed. The people who were in favor of the plan before the vote still feel that way, and those opposed won't change much either.
If the Congressional Budget Office were scoring the politics of what happened Sunday night, I am not sure what the result would be. Sure, an argument can be made that Obama and congressional Democrats now have a major accomplishment that they can hang their hats on, that the "incompetent" tag won't fit quite as well as before. Democrats passionately hope, and many believe, this will be the case.
The pros and cons of the health care reform bill have already been baked into the cake.
On the other hand, when a party pushes through Congress a major and thoroughly discussed piece of legislation that voters say they don't like and don't want passed, that is hardly a way to ingratiate yourself with those who oppose it. Being perceived as wrong, as opposed to both wrong and incompetent, is not much progress.
Some argue that a few of the more tangible benefits of the bill will kick in before the Nov. 2 midterm election, for example the pre-existing conditions prohibition. But then again, any rate increase for health insurance premiums or claim payment refusal will be blamed on passage of this bill, even if they are completely unrelated.
So my money is on Sunday's vote not fundamentally changing the dynamics of the 2010 campaign. The pros and cons of this bill have already been baked into the cake. It's what happens over the next 7 1/2 months that could make things better -- or worse -- for Democrats.
I would ignore any polls conducted over the next week or two. Let the conversations at office water coolers, over backyard fences and in grocery store aisles take place for a while; let things settle before passing judgment on whether there is a lasting impact from this vote. And, as has been so clear in watching polls on this issue, the precise wording of poll questions can make, even inadvertently, a big difference in the results. If we are trying to ascertain whether the politics of 2010 have been altered by the health care vote, focus on the politics and not the issue.
Here, in a nutshell, are the indicators to watch for.
• First, do Congress' dismal job-approval ratings improve? That approval rating in the March 4-7 Gallup poll was 16 percent, 2 points above its record low, with an 80 percent disapproval. The survey was conducted among approximately 1,014 adults, with a 3-point error margin. In the March 11-14 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 adults, 17 percent approved and 77 percent disapproved. That poll, too, had a 3-point error margin.
• Second, do the favorability ratings for the Democratic Party or the Democratic Congress rise or fall? In the three NBC/WSJ polls since the first of this year, 37-39 percent of all adults rated the Democratic Party positively, while 38-43 percent rated the party negatively.
• Third, does the president's job approval rating go up or down, even acknowledging that his name is not going to be on the ballot? Obama's job ratings in the Gallup poll have ranged from 46 percent to 53 percent since the first of the year, and were usually around 49 or 50 percent.
• Finally, watch the generic congressional ballot test, which theoretically measures the popular vote for the House. The national two-party popular vote for a party in the House averages within 2.5 percentage points of the share of seats that each party will win, but at this point, most public polling is measuring registered voters -- which translates into a turnout greater than in a presidential election, not that of an actual midterm election turnout, which typically runs about a third less.
Polling in recent months among registered voters averages about even, with neither side stretching an advantage beyond 3 points. Both the last Gallup and NBC/WSJ polls had Democrats up by 3 points in their registered voter samples. But among those voters most interested in the election, the NBC/WSJ poll had Republicans leading by 13 and 15 points in the two polls that tested the generic ballot test this year. Those are the people I would focus on until Gallup and others start applying their likely-voter screens.
Maybe this vote will tilt the scales one way or the other, maybe not, but let things settle before drawing a firm conclusion. This issue took 14 months to get to this point, and if there is a dramatic change in attitudes, it will only matter if it has legs -- that is, if that change lasts into the fall.