Sorry, pundits: Obamacare is still a major midterm issue

Depending on the source, the Affordable Care Act’s fading from the front burner of American political discourse with just weeks to go before the midterm elections is either a lamentable condition or one to celebrate. Analysts on both the left and the right, however, agree that Obamacare is not the pressing issue that the pundits predicted it would be just a few short months ago.

“[T]here is as much ‘good’ news about the PPACA out there for Democrats to point to as there is ‘bad’ news for Republicans to point to so, in some sense, it ends up becoming a wash and neither party can really benefit from the issue,” Christian Science Monitor contributor Doug Mataconis submitted in September in an effort to explain why Obamacare has not proven to be the motivating force many assumed it would be.

Mataconis and others are right: the pundits and the press are no longer banging endlessly on the Obamacare drum, and the issue has faded from the headlines. It has not, however, faded from the minds of voters.

An AP-GfK survey of likely voters released in October showed that the Affordable Care Act was among the top four issues on the minds of those who will head to the polls in November. The Democratic firm Democracy corps found similar results when they polled voters who are already committed to voting for either Republican or Democratic candidates this fall.

Among Democrats, a candidate’s position on the ACA was cited by 34 percent of voters one of the three most critical issues which would determine their vote; falling just behind entitlements, women’s issues, and the economy. For Republicans, 38 percent agreed that a candidate’s stance on the ACA was one of their three most important issues, ranking just behind the rise of the Islamic State and the economy.

All due respect to the chattering class, campaigns are often better indicators of issues which truly mater t voters. Talk is cheap, but hard-earned campaign donations are not. And, as Cook Political Report analyst Elizabeth Wilner reported on Thursday, candidates – Republican candidates specifically – are spending heavily on advertising relating to the ACA.

“We’ve arranged the 15 messages not by total spot count for the week, but by the size of the spot-count advantage one party held on that particular message during the week, from Republicans’ dominance of criticism of the Affordable Care Act to Democrats’ significant edge on social issues overall, prescription drugs and education,” Wilner wrote.

She included this helpful graphic which shows that anti-Obamacare ads and generic healthcare spots are all over the airwaves this campaign cycle.

Obamacare ad spending

Not surprisingly, the economy and healthcare are dominating the air war. More surprisingly for those who have dismissed the ACA as an “old” or “faded” issue, criticism of the healthcare law was a significant component of the GOP message mix last week. From October 6-12, the anti-Obamacare message was the fourth most-mentioned issue or issue position in ad occurrences, after healthcare overall (all mentions of the ACA, Medicare, and healthcare generally), jobs/unemployment, and the budget/government spending. Plan cancellations and rising premiums in certain states are giving Republicans more anti-Obamacare ammo. [Emphasis added]

Wilner also observed that a handful of Democrats are running advertising which could be construed as “pro-ACA,” but the volume of those ads pale in comparison to the number of anti-Obamacare spots running.

Political analysts who claimed that the ACA was fading as an election year issue have been proven shortsighted by the last week of advertising. Some made the same observation in 2012, suggesting that Mitt Romney’s decision to deemphasize opposition to Obamacare was an indicator that the issue was declining in relevance. It is a safe bet that the pundits will declare Obamacare a non-issue for the 2016 race, too, right up until it becomes one.