No Perfect Political Weapon

A new poll tests voters’ attitudes about two key 2014 topics: Obamacare and the economy.

National Journal
Charlie Cook
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

Any­one who knows me well knows I am usu­ally eye­ing the oven for the next fresh batch of in-depth pub­lic-opin­ion data from Demo­cracy Corps, a part­ner­ship between le­gendary Demo­crat­ic strategists Stan Green­berg and James Carville that just cel­eb­rated its 15th an­niversary. It gets even bet­ter when the two team up with Re­sur­gent Re­pub­lic, cofoun­ded by vet­er­an GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres, as they did to craft a na­tion­al sur­vey of 840 likely 2014 voters (in­clud­ing 50 per­cent reached on cel­lu­lar phones) con­duc­ted by Green­berg Quin­lan Ros­ner Re­search. The sur­vey was con­duc­ted March 19-23 for NPR, and it probed voters’ at­ti­tudes on the Af­ford­able Care Act, the state of the eco­nomy, and their choices in Novem­ber.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Demo­cracy Corps and Re­sur­gent Re­pub­lic touted the poll’s re­lease with broadly di­ver­gent memos: The Demo­crats’ head­line read, “Be Care­ful Ac­cept­ing Con­ven­tion­al Wis­dom on the Af­ford­able Care Act and 2014 Be­ing a Re­pub­lic­an Year,” while Re­pub­lic­ans saw “Early Signs of An­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an Midterm Wave.” There is some glass-half-full/glass-half-empty men­tal­ity in­her­ent in such a col­lab­or­at­ive ef­fort. But in my ex­per­i­ence, giv­en the track re­cord of the re­search or­gan­iz­a­tions in­volved, this is very high-qual­ity stuff, and you can pretty much take the num­bers them­selves to the bank.

Some of the sur­vey’s most in­triguing find­ings were mes­sage tests on the Af­ford­able Care Act and the eco­nomy, with one set of mes­sages writ­ten by the Demo­crats and one set writ­ten by the Re­pub­lic­ans. The find­ings should give both sides pause: Just as the Af­ford­able Care Act may not be the uni­ver­sally deadly weapon most Re­pub­lic­ans seem to think it is, fo­cus­ing on the eco­nomy and a min­im­um-wage hike may not be the sal­va­tion many Demo­crats seem to think it could be.

On the ACA, the sur­vey gave voters a choice between two state­ments, one from a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate and one from a Re­pub­lic­an. The Demo­crat’s state­ment read: “The health care law is a start, but it’s not per­fect. We need to make it work for small busi­nesses and get costs down”¦. Re­peal­ing it with more polit­ic­al fight­ing will hurt a lot of people.” The Re­pub­lic­an’s said: “Obama­care is hurt­ing more people than it’s help­ing”¦. It’s time to pass health care re­form that lowers costs and al­lows the people — not the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment or in­sur­ance com­pan­ies — to con­trol their own health care.”

The res­ults of the sur­vey showed that likely voters pre­ferred the Demo­crat­ic mes­sage 49 per­cent to 44 per­cent. On the ba­sic ques­tion “Do you sup­port or op­pose the health care re­form law that passed in 2010, also known as the Af­ford­able Care Act or Obama­care?” 51 per­cent said they op­posed it and just 47 per­cent said they sup­por­ted it. But, as Carville and Green­berg point out, on the fol­low-up ques­tion to op­pon­ents which read, “Would you say you op­pose the health care re­form law be­cause it goes too far “¦ or be­cause it doesn’t go far enough?” 7 per­cent picked “doesn’t go far enough,” the­or­et­ic­ally bring­ing die-hard op­pos­i­tion to the ACA down to 44 per­cent.

On the eco­nomy, voters chose between a Demo­crat­ic state­ment: “The eco­nomy is re­cov­er­ing, but not for reg­u­lar hard­work­ing people”¦. We must raise the min­im­um wage “¦ and stop un­fair trade agree­ments that wipe out Amer­ic­an jobs”; and a Re­pub­lic­an state­ment: “The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has had six years to get this eco­nomy go­ing and their policies haven’t worked”¦. It’s time to pro­duce more en­ergy here at home, and edu­cate people for the jobs of the 21st cen­tury.” An­oth­er in­ter­est­ing res­ult: By 48 per­cent to 46 per­cent, voters chose the GOP’s mes­sage.

On the sur­face, noth­ing about the top lines would sug­gest that Demo­crats are headed for a bath in Novem­ber. On the ques­tion, “If the elec­tion for U.S. Con­gress were held today, would you be vot­ing for the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate or the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate?” the bal­lot was vir­tu­ally tied, with Demo­crats at 44 per­cent and Re­pub­lic­ans at 43 per­cent.

The real prob­lems for Demo­crats lie be­low the top lines. In fact, they are threefold.

First, as even Green­berg and Carville ac­know­ledged, Re­pub­lic­ans were 7 per­cent­age points more likely than Demo­crats to say they are cer­tain to vote this Novem­ber. Second, while Demo­crats’ na­tion­al stand­ing in this poll is mid­dling at best, the most com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate and House elec­tions this fall will be tak­ing place on much less fa­vor­able ter­rain, thanks to both GOP re­dis­trict­ing in the House and Sen­ate Demo­crats’ ex­traordin­ary ex­pos­ure after their wild suc­cess six years ago. In these red states and dis­tricts, the makeup of the elect­or­ate is a far cry from this sur­vey’s 37 per­cent Dem/31 per­cent GOP voter break­down.

Third, Demo­crats are a wreck with in­de­pend­ents, who make up a third of all sur­vey re­spond­ents and an even great­er share in com­pet­it­ive states and dis­tricts. In­de­pend­ents dis­ap­proved of Obama’s job per­form­ance by 61 per­cent to 35 per­cent (com­pared with 51 per­cent/46 per­cent over­all), chose the GOP’s mes­sage on health care by 50 per­cent to 43 per­cent, and backed the GOP’s eco­nom­ic mes­sage by a whop­ping 57 per­cent to 35 per­cent. Amaz­ingly, they even dis­ap­proved of Demo­crats’ job per­form­ance as the ma­jor­ity party in the Sen­ate (76 per­cent dis­ap­prove/18 per­cent ap­prove) more than they dis­ap­proved of Re­pub­lic­ans’ per­form­ance in the House (72 per­cent dis­ap­prove, 23 per­cent ap­prove).

The only sil­ver lin­ing for Demo­crats among in­de­pend­ents at this point is that their skep­ti­cism hasn’t yet hardened in­to a firm choice for Novem­ber. On the con­gres­sion­al-bal­lot ques­tion, Demo­crat­ic voters sup­por­ted the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate by 93 per­cent to 4 per­cent; Re­pub­lic­ans sup­por­ted the GOP can­did­ate by 89 per­cent to 4 per­cent. In­de­pend­ents broke for Re­pub­lic­ans by a 16-point mar­gin, 45 per­cent to 29 per­cent, but those num­bers also mean that more than a quarter haven’t yet made up their minds.

Does the po­ten­tial for a GOP wave ex­ist? Sur­vey says: Yes. But is there ample time for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates to screw up their stand­ing with a large pool of un­de­cided in­de­pend­ents? Of course there is.

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