Loving and Hating Obamacare With One Muddled Mind

E.J. Dionne has a nice column pointing out that while “Obamacare” remains unpopular, most of the provisions are well-liked, and thus Democrats should run on the issue. As regular readers know, I certainly agree that the individual components of reform are far more popular than reform overall. However, the column’s headline — “Obamacare has growing support, even if its name does not” — isn’t really buttressed by the article. Actually, support for key provisions of the law, including coverage of pre-existing conditions, health-insurance exchanges offering subsidies to middle-income policy holders and Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, have always polled well.

Moreover caution is always in order with issue polling. When these kinds of polls show public opinion fractured, it’s tempting to believe that one side or the other represents voters’ “true” support. That’s the wrong way to interpret such polls. Yes, the ACA polls badly while most of its components poll well. But that doesn’t mean that the ACA is genuinely unpopular (as most opponents suggest) or that it’s genuinely popular (as most supporters contend). There is no underlying truth to be excavated from the results; the best we can do is say that public opinion is inconsistent.

Well, that’s the best we observers can do. Campaign operatives, in contrast, can counsel their candidates to stress whatever is popular. What those operatives shouldn’t do is to fall for their own spin, or let their candidates fall for it. That applies both to Republican consultants encouraging candidates to bash Obamacare, and Democratic consultants urging candidates to highlight the law’s most popular provisions.

The broader point: We can measure public opinion, but sometimes – actually, quite often – public opinion is an incoherent mess. Voters have plenty of things other than politics going on in their lives; it’s not surprising that they should find the strongest selling points from both sides quite appealing and let it go at that. For those of us who pay close attention, it may seem weird that someone could hate Obamacare while loving almost every part of it. There must be one overriding opinion hidden in there — pro or con — that good research can isolate, no? Well, no. Sometimes, incoherence in the polls simply reflects incoherence among voters. We just have to live with that.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.