The noise you hear is the grinding of Democratic teeth over the botched launch and arguably deeper design problems of the Affordable Care Act.
Democratic pols had been gleefully anticipating the negative impact the Republican Party would incur as a result of the recent government shutdown debacle. Their biggest concern, in fact, was whether the fallout could last 13 months until the November 2014 midterm elections. In truth, Democratic expectations may have been outsize to begin with. After budget showdowns and government shutdowns, both sides often lose, even if one side loses more than the other. The outcome is never a zero-sum game. National polls conducted immediately after the shutdown—but before the rollout of the ACA website—made it clear that Republicans took a much bigger hit than Democrats in the shutdown aftermath. However, not to be ignored, polls showed that Democrats in Congress also took a hit.
Now Democrats are shaking their heads over signs that much of any advantage they might have gained has been effectively neutralized. Their concerns stretch beyond the current HealthCare.gov website problems and reflect fears that other political mines in the implementation of the ACA could make things even worse for their party. They are working against the political clock, as the shelf life of the government-shutdown problems for the GOP runs out (assuming no additional shutdown/debt-default scares, which is hardly a safe assumption).
Polling released last week from the Democracy Corps survey shows that the Republican Party’s brand took a serious beating in the 80 congressional districts most likely to feature competitive races. But ballot results hardly moved when the pollsters matched named Republican incumbents with unnamed, generic Democratic candidates in each race, or when questions paired named Democratic incumbents with unnamed, generic Republican candidates.
Democracy Corps is a highly regarded joint project of Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and party strategist James Carville, and it’s closely watched by operatives on both sides as well as by independent analysts. The firm’s numbers are usually very good and provide solid insight into the broad dynamics of congressional elections. Measuring the overall perception of each party in Congress, the recent Democracy Corps poll asked respondents to “rate your feelings toward people and organizations,” with 100 meaning a very warm, favorable feeling; zero meaning a very cold, unfavorable feeling; and 50 meaning not particularly warm or cold. For “Democrats in Congress,” back when this same survey was conducted in June, 46 percent indicated unfavorable views and 35 percent indicated favorable views, for a net of minus 11 and a median rating of 43.6. In the Oct. 19-24 survey of 1,250 likely voters in swing districts, 51 percent gave an unfavorable view to 35 percent favorable, for a net of minus 21 and a median of 41.4. Clearly, the Democrats in Congress brand took a hit.
But for Republicans, the damage was even greater. In June, 49 percent gave “Republicans in Congress” an unfavorable rating, which grew to 61 in October, while the GOP favorable rating dropped from 29 to 25. Republicans in Congress dropped from a net minus 20 to a net minus 36, with the median score dropping from 40.0 to 34.3. This means Republicans have a net favorable/unfavorable of minus 36, compared with a net of minus 21 for Democrats. Republicans currently have a 10-point-higher unfavorable score and 10-point-lower favorable rating.
Things get more interesting when you look at two other questions. First, it is important to look at the results from Democracy Corps when the following statement was tested: “I can’t vote to reelect (House incumbent’s name given) in 2014 because we need new people that will fix Washington and get things done,” with the other option: “I will vote to reelect (House incumbent) in 2014 because (he/she) is doing a good job and addressing issues that are important to us.” When asked which they agreed with, respondents’ choices showed practically no difference between June and October for Democratic incumbents, and the “can’t reelect” response went up for Republicans by just 4 points, from 46 to 50, still within the margin of error.
When named Republican incumbents were matched against generic Democratic challengers and named Democratic incumbents were matched against generic Republican candidates (because in many races, the identity of the likely general election nominee is not known), the differences between June and October were also minimal.
Greenberg argues that the obvious Republican brand damage will eventually seep down and damage individual GOP incumbents. Specifically, he argues that before campaigns have begun, and before Democratic advertising is aired tying the shutdown to specific Republican incumbents, the connection between a GOP incumbent and Republican behavior in Washington can’t be expected to be fully established. That’s certainly plausible; sometimes advertising is needed—specifically, lots of gross ratings points are needed to drive a message through to the voting public. However, Democrats certainly expected to see at least some damage filter down to individual Republicans by this point.
This article appears in the November 5, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Damage Assessment.