Just How Damaging Was the Health Care Debate for Dems?

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Two Gallup polls this week confirmed what’s become obvious – Democrats seem headed for an electoral bloodbath in this year’s congressional mid-term elections.

First, Gallup announced Republicans have the largest lead in the outfit’s history when voters are asked which party they prefer in the upcoming congressional elections. Then today, Gallup released a poll showing that voters believe Republicans handle terrorism, immigration, federal spending, the economy, Afghanistan, and jobs better than Democrats. (The Democrats are better on the environment, said those surveyed.)

The second Gallup poll also also showed that voters are evenly split on whether Republicans or Democrats would better handle health care. Democrats have historically been viewed as far more trustworthy on this issue, meaning this latest set of poll results feeds into an emerging conventional wisdom – that Democrats grossly underestimated the political damage of pushing through health care reform and that the issue is a primary reason Democrats are set up for big losses come November.

“…it’s pretty obvious that the Democrats’ electoral woes are directly tied to the passage of the health care bill,” says Jame Hamsher, founder of the progressive website Firedoglake.com.

Hamsher, who opposed the final legislation, points to polls she commissioned in swing districts showing the unpopularity of the health care bill and the individual mandate, in particular. She also cites an analysis by Jay Cost of Real Clear Politics that concludes:

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was so deeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats’ fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority – Independent voters – began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President’s job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Reconstructing the Democrats’ meme, we can fairly say that the economy is a huge problem for the party. Of this, there can be no doubt. We can also say that the stalled recovery denied the Democrats a chance to win back the voters they lost over health care. But the process and passage of health care reform were crucial elements in the story. That’s when the party started losing the voters it needs to retain control of the government.

The latest monthly tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation appears to provide evidence that Democrats are losing even more ground on health care, despite Administration predictions that the law would get more popular once people learned more about it. The August Kaiser poll, released this week, says support for the new health reform law is evenly split, just a month after its polls showed 50% supporting the law and just 35% opposing it.

Taken together, Hamsher and Cost’s analyses and the Kaiser result seem to suggest health care reform was a huge loser for Democrats that they’ll pay for in November. But it’s worth looking deeper into the Kaiser results.

Thirty-four percent of those surveyed said they would likely oppose a member of Congress if they voted for reform. But 31% said a vote for reform would make them likely to support a candidate. And 17% of Democrats surveyed – who are more likely to support the new law – said reform was the most important issue to them. Just 9% of Republicans 8% of independent said this. (Jobs and economy ranked #1 in the Kaiser survey and the latest Gallup poll.)

Numbers guru Nate Silver says it’s basically impossible to measure exactly how determinative any factor – health reform, the economy, the oil spill – has been in causing Democratic poll numbers to plummet.

So is, as Jane Hamsher suggests, health care directly related to the Democrats’ current woes? I think yes, but the answer may be a little more ephemeral than any survey result or poll can show. The debate over reform and ugly side of politics that was put on display – the backroom deals, the dishonest rhetoric – most definitely fed into voters’ anti-incumbent feelings. And the Democrats are in power now, with control of the White House and Congress. So the party itself can be seen as an incumbent, just as much as any one candidate. In addition, as Silver wrote in July, the push for health care came at the worst point possible in terms of the economy.

1. In October 2008, the Bush administration (with significant support from Democrats in Congress) passed a roughly $800 billion bailout bill, which it pitched as being necessary to avert a near-term economic catastrophe.

2. In February 2009, the Obama administration (with near-universal support from Democrats in Congress) passed a roughly $800 billion stimulus bill, which it pitched as being necessary to avert a near-term economic catastrophe.

3. Employment reports which came out between February 2009 and July 2009 showed the economy losing 3.7 million jobs, far worse than what most economists were anticipating: an economic catastrophe.

4. It was about at this point that the Democrats began their public push for another roughly $800 billion bill, this time in the form of health insurance reform, which they pitched as being necessary to avert a long-term economic catastrophe.

The combination of these four events was going to make it a tough slog for health care reform, to put it mildly. Even if (2) and (3) had occurred, but the bailout hadn’t, the Democrats probably would have been OK. But if two $800B bills would have been a coincidence in the public’s mind, the third one made for a pattern, and it was a pattern juxtaposed against the background of an economy which was getting worse rather than better.