It’s not easy to lose 63 seats in a House election. Before 2010, the last time it had been done was when Joe DiMaggio was still patrolling center field for the New York Yankees. It’s even harder to pull off such a feat when exit polling shows that Americans were inclined to blame the prior president (a member of the other party) for the poor economy. This raises a question that Democrats and the media have been avoiding for the past 16 months: Just how did the Democrats do it?

A new academic study says the answer can likely be reduced to one word: Obamacare. The study, which was conducted by scholars from Dartmouth and elsewhere, finds that “supporters of health care reform paid a significant price.” The authors looked at cap and trade, the economic “stimulus,” and Obamacare, and concluded that the latter had by far the most adverse effect on Democrats’ fortunes—voters were “approximately 5 points less likely to vote for an incumbent who supported health reform than one who opposed it.”

Indeed, if “all Democrats in competitive districts [had] opposed health care reform,” that likely would have swung about 25 seats from the Republican column into the Democratic column and would have given the Democrats “a 62 percent chance of winning enough races to maintain majority control of the House.”

But that’s not the only interesting finding. The authors ask, “How is it that .  .  . votes come to affect election outcomes?” They conclude that Democrats’ support for Obama-care led voters “to perceive them as more liberal,” “more ideologically distant,” and “out of step.” This was particularly true for independent voters. In other words, voters not only oppose Obamacare as policy but view it as a symbol of a commitment to big-government liberalism.

This strongly suggests that the more Obama-care becomes an issue in the fall, the more it will highlight President Obama’s liberalism in the minds of voters—particularly independent voters. It correspondingly suggests that the more this election is focused simply on stewardship of the economy, the less Obama’s big-government liberalism will be highlighted in voters’ minds.

In other words, should Mitt Romney win the Republican presidential nomination, he could surely run (and has given every indication that he would run) as a centrist who’s focused on the economy. But by choosing to de-emphasize Obamacare, he would allow Obama to come across as more of a centrist as well. This would effectively take the GOP’s best issue off the table. What’s more, no issue will more starkly highlight the differences between the parties than Obamacare. Voters know that if Obama is reelected, Obamacare is here to stay. If the Republican wins, there is at least a very good shot at repeal.

Rick Santorum clearly has no intention of de-emphasizing Obamacare. To the contrary, Obamacare is the issue on which he has staked his candidacy. The contrast between Romney’s and Santorum’s levels of emphasis on Obama’s signature legislation could hardly have been clearer than during their speeches on the night of Super Tuesday. Santorum spent no less than seven minutes on Obamacare, while Romney devoted seven words to it.

Romney said, “He passed Obamacare. I will repeal Obamacare.” This is pretty much how Romney has talked about Obamacare throughout this campaign. On the few occasions when he has talked about the subject at greater length, he has emphasized how Obamacare would loot money from Medicare and raise taxes. Both points are true. They’re also well down the list of reasons why almost all Republicans, and the vast majority of independents, loathe Obamacare.

Santorum made the point well:

The reason that .  .  . I ultimately decided to get into this race was .  .  . one particular issue that to me breaks the camel’s back with respect to liberty in this country—and that is the issue of Obamacare. .  .  . [A] little less than 50 percent of the people in this country [now] depend on some form of federal payment, some form of government benefit, to help provide for them. After Obamacare, it will not be less than 50 percent. It will be 100 percent.

Now every single American will be looking to the federal government, not to their neighbor, not to their church, not .  .  . to the community .  .  . [but] to those in charge, to those who now say to you that they are the allocator and creator of rights in America.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the beginning of the end of freedom in America.

Santorum also took direct aim at Romney:

It’s one thing to defend a mandated, top-down, government-run health care program that you imposed on the people of your state. It’s another thing to recommend and encourage the president of the United States to impose the same thing on the American people. And it’s another thing yet to go out and tell the American public that you didn’t do it.

In response to what has become Santorum’s principal line of attack, Romney effectively has two choices: He can tell the 60 percent of Republicans who haven’t been supporting him in primary voting to date that they effectively have no choice but to support him—and, in any event, that he is the only one who can beat Obama. Or he can make the effort to convince Republicans that he genuinely shares their desire to repeal Obamacare—and that he understands why it’s such an affront to them, and to the nation.

If Romney wants to convince Republicans that he’s with them—rather than convince them that they have no choice but to be with him—he would do well to pledge repeatedly that he would use every tool at his disposal to repeal Obamacare, instead of saying simply that he’ll sign repeal legislation if it happens to cross his desk. He would also do well to explain to voters why he’s so committed to repeal. Why is it so much worse to have a government-run health care system and an individual mandate at the federal level than at the state level? Why is the federal version more of an affront to liberty? (It is, but Romney needs to explain why.)

The electability argument is ultimately about issues. Obamacare is Obama’s greatest weakness. He is more likely to be defeated by a candidate who is willing to run against Obamacare as the epitome of big-government liberalism—emphasizing its singular threat to Americans’ liberty and their way of life.

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