The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act has dented public support for President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, but Republicans still need to be careful about how they play the next 11 months. If the GOP makes the law the cornerstone of next year’s midterm elections, the strategy will backfire in competitive districts, predicts a top Democratic pollster. “This is a trap,” Stan Greenberg told reporters during a conference call held Thursday. “Grabbing hold of Obamacare will hurt them in this election.”
Greenberg, a co-founder of Democracy Corps and a veteran Democratic political adviser, made the prediction as he unveiled the results of a new poll of 86 battleground districts in the House of Representatives. The results, Greenberg argues, paint a brighter picture for vulnerable Democrats than conventional wisdom suggests.
The early verdict is clear: so far, people don’t like Obama’s historic revamp of the healthcare system. In both the 50 most competitive Republican-held district and the 36 tightest Democratic seats, voters oppose Obamacare by a nine-point margin. The dismal rollout has put Democratic incumbents on the defensive and stoked conservatives’ hopes of making gains in the 2014 elections.
But Greenberg believes the GOP, which intends to highlight the law’s shortcomings in campaigns across the country next year, has seized on a short-term political advantage to its long-term detriment. “This is not a wedge issue,” he said. “It’s reinforcing the idea that they’re only interested in partisan battle.”
That’s because the poll found residents of battleground districts would still prefer to keep the health-care law and focus on fixing its flaws than to repeal it altogether. The poll found that 49% of respondents want to implement and tweak the ACA, compared to 44% who favor repeal. The five-point margin is closer than the 51% to 44% spread in October, a reflection of voters’ frustration with the botched debut of healthcare.gov and disquiet over the prospect of soaring insurance costs. But some of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act comes from liberals who believes the law doesn’t go far enough, Greenberg notes. Even in Republican-held competitive districts, voters narrowly prefer to implement the law than to scrap it and start over.
“This issue is evenly divided,” Greenberg claimed. “The idea that healthcare is their route to winning here, I think, will come out against them.” He argues that voters will interpret their focus on healthcare as a sign of knee-jerk obstruction at a moment when the country is weary of partisan gridlock. Running in the midterms against a law with no viable prospect of repeal, Greenberg claims, would tie the GOP to the tarnished Tea Party brand and risk a backlash for ignoring signal issues like the economy—as Democrats did in 2010 by threading a big, polarizing bill through a divided government at a moment when the economy had cratered and voters wanted lawmakers to focus on jobs.
Despite the Democratic pollster’s optimism, there are troubling signs for the President and his party. Obama’s job approval is underwater, 43% to 48%. Democrats are viewed unfavorably even in Democratic districts, and the party has seen enthusiasm wane among its base, including women and young voters. The survey also revealed deepening skepticism that voters will reap benefits from the healthcare law.
“There’s no doubt the rollout hurt,” said James Carville, the Democracy Corps co-founder and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. “If I was a Republican I would be gleeful, and if I was a Democratic I would be really concerned.” But the midterms are nearly a year away, Carville added, citing the “reasonable hope” that in the meantime the kinks in the website will be smoothed and the economy will grow.
And the Republican predicament, Greenberg claims, is even worse: House Speaker John Boehner is less popular than Obama, the Tea Party’s ratings are in the tank, and GOP incumbents are increasingly vulnerable. By a 59% to 37% margin, the poll found, respondents in battleground districts preferred House Republican incumbents to work with Obama than to devote themselves to stymieing his agenda. “The Obamacare message is their weakest position in the election,” Greenberg said.
Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, cast doubt on the findings a poll conducted by a partisan Democrat. “We hope the Democrats are taking this poll seriously,” she said in an email to TIME. “In the meantime, we’ll continue talking to voters about Obamacare and how government-run healthcare that is increasing costs and decreasing access isn’t the answer.”
The poll, conducted from Dec. 3 to Dec. 8 for Democracy Corps and the liberal Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, surveyed 1,250 likely 2014 voters from the 86 most competitive House seats in the U.S. Its margin of error is 2.8%.