Will ACA Problems Hurt Democrats as Much as the Shutdown Hurt the GOP?

Democratic dreams of long-term Republican fallout may be fading as Obamacare rollout issues grab the spotlight.

People look at a sign informing them that the Statue of Liberty is closed due to the government shutdown in Battery Park on October 1, 2013 in New York City. Federal museums and parks across the nation are closed starting today due to a government shutdown for the first time in nearly two decades. The Dow Jones industrial average, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq all rose slightly higher in early trading Tuesday morning.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Nov. 4, 2013, 4:02 p.m.

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.