Poll: Young Adults Rejecting Obamacare

Obama's staunchest supporters are disillusioned with the healthcare law and the President himself

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David Maxwell / EPA

Young voters, a cornerstone of Barack Obama‘s political coalition, are growing increasingly disillusioned with the President and skeptical of his signature healthcare law, according to a new national poll released Wednesday.

The survey, conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, found that 56% of Americans aged 18 to 29 disapprove of Obama’s signature domestic initiative, compared to just 39% who support the law. Among these so-called “millennials,” who twice propelled Obama to the Oval Office, the President’s job approval slipped to 41%, the lowest mark recorded the poll has recorded.

“We’re now seeing a sea change among this critical demographic,” said Trey Grayson, the director of the institute. “You’re seeing cracks in his base.”

Political ratings rise and fall, and it is not surprising to see Obama’s dip at a low moment for his presidency. But the poll may feed deeper concerns about the law’s structural challenges. In order to keep costs down, the Affordable Care Act must lure enough young, healthy people into the insurance marketplace to offset increased coverage of older or sicker people. But in the Harvard survey, just 29% of uninsured millennials reported that they were likely to enroll. Low levels of enrollment among the young and healthy could hike costs, thereby further deterring healthy people from enrolling—and triggering the so-called death spiral that health-care experts say remains a worst-case scenario.

Amid the drumbeat of criticism over the rocky debut of Healthcare.gov, young voters are increasingly suspicious that the law will hike their healthcare costs without bolstering the quality of their care. Just 17% of respondents said they expected their care to improve, compared to 44% who expect their coverage to worsen. One in two millennials expect the price tag on their plan to rise, while just one in 10 predict their costs will fall and 36% expect them to stay about the same.

“Young people have been the outliers. They’ve been the folks who have been the most optimistic and the most trusting of the President,” John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Institute of Politics, told reporters in a conference call on Wednesday morning. But at this point, he added, “there are very few aspects of the healthcare initiative that they approve of. They think quality will decrease and prices will increase.”

The unveiling of the poll comes as the President hosts a youth summit in Washington on Wednesday, the second event in a three-week push to enumerate the merits of the Affordable Care Act ahead of a Dec. 23 enrollment deadline for coverage beginning Jan. 1. The survey highlights the challenges Obama faces as he gears up to refocus attention on the benefits of his biggest domestic accomplishment. Republicans framed the numbers as evidence that Obama’s staunchest supporters are now awakening to the law’s consequences. “Millennials are seeing the negative impacts of Obamacare, especially rising costs,” said Elliott Echols, the Republican National Committee’s national youth director.

Obamacare is not the only keystone issue on which the President draws lower grades, according to the poll. Respondents are now less confident in Obama’s handling of Iran (37% favorable, down 10 percentage points since April), the economy (33%, down nine percentage points, amid lower unemployment and soaring financial markets) and the federal budget deficit (28% favorable, down eight points).

If there is a bright spot for the White House, it is that the survey was conducted amid unremittingly negative news stories about the bungled Obamacare website, patients kicked off their plans and the potential for lost doctors. The Obama Administration, as well as the law’s many supporters, believe the public will embrace the overhaul once they begin to realize its benefits. With the glitch-addled website working more smoothly, online enrollment is rising after a sluggish start.

“What’s important for everybody to remember is not only that the law has already helped millions of people but that there are millions more who stand to be helped,” Obama said Tuesday. “We’ve got to make sure they know that. And I’ve said very clearly that our poor execution in the first couple months on the website clouded the fact that there are a whole bunch of people who stand to benefit.”

The Harvard poll, which surveyed 2,089 18-to-29 year olds in English and Spanish from Oct. 30 to Nov. 11, has a margin of error of 2.1%.