Health Care Goes South for Democrats

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My timing was impeccable: Last month I wrote a story for about the modest role health care seemed to be playing in the midterm elections. My thesis was that, although Obamacare was far from a winning issue for Democrats, it hardly promised to be the political debacle that Republicans gleefully predicted when Obama signed health care reform bill back in March. I was reacting in part to polling which showed that the bill’s popularity had steadily grown in the months since its laborious and sometimes tawdry passage. In late August,’s well-respected aggregation of surveys showed opinion nearly split, with 43 percent of the public opposed and 46 percent in favor. And Democrats cheerily predicted that opinion would improve from there, possibly making it a majority-support issue.

But I seem to have written my story at an inflection point. Because in the weeks since, the public has grown notably more sour about Obamacare. The pro/anti spread is now more like 40-48–and the trend continues downward. Part of the problem for Democrats is mass confusion about the law’s provisions, as our Kate Pickert wrote yesterday. Another, according to a new Associated Press poll, is that a majority of voters aren’t aware of the Congressional Budget Office finding that the bill will reduce the deficit. But it’s also quite possible that Americans never loved the law to begin with, and that as the recession drags on they’re growing increasingly irritated that Congress and Obama spent so much time on it.

What’s particularly troubling for the Democrats is that the bill appears especially unpopular in many of the key districts and states that Democrats are trying to defend. (Here’s an ad supporting Tea Party star Christine O’Donnell in Democratic Delaware touting her support for “freedom to choose doctors and health plans,” while in Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee Joe Sestak is under attack by a Karl Rove-affiliated group for the costs of the “Sestak-Obama plan.”) The new House GOP “Pledge to America,” meanwhile, makes repeal of Obamacare a core party plank. And it’s not easy to find a House Democrat who is making his or her vote for health care a selling point.

It’s possible this grim picture will brighten somewhat for Democrats. Several of the law’s most popular new provisions kick in today, something President Obama spent yesterday publicizing. They include bans on denial of coverage to children with pre-existing conditions and on lifetime benefit caps for all policyholders. (Insurers are already trying to undercut the first of these new rules, however.) The ongoing publicity around those new measures–and the tangible changes in many Americans’ lives– might warm the public to Obamacare.

So it’s possible we’re at another inflection point. But it’s also clear that confusion and skepticism about the law runs deep. And with just six weeks left until Election Day, Democrats have precious little time to turn that sentiment around.

P.S. And for any readers who are themselves confused about the new law, here is Karen Tumulty and Kate Pickert’s tour de force explanation of what’s it in, what it does, and what it means for you.