In the wake of the best performance by Republicans in a House election since 1938 (the last time Republicans gained this many seats) and arguably since 1894 (the last time Republicans gained this many seats and emerged as the majority party), President Obama and his allies are trying to interpret exit poll results as showing that Americans are split down the middle on the Democrats’ centerpiece legislation: Obamacare.
Exit polling shows that 48 percent of voters favor the repeal of Obamacare, 16 percent favor keeping it as it is, and 31 percent favor expanding it (while 5 percent declined to answer). President Obama cites this as evidence that, in reference to the Democrats’ unilateral passage of Obamacare, “one out of two voters think it was the right thing to do.”
This doesn’t pass the sniff test. Why would voters overwhelmingly support the party that’s aggressively pushing for Obamacare’s repeal if they were divided right down the middle on Obamacare’s merits? Why, especially, would they do so given that exit polling shows that 64 percent of voters blame either Wall Street bankers (35 percent) or President Bush (29 percent) for the poor economy, while only 23 percent blame President Obama?
Since blame for the economy is, at the least, split between the two parties, voters wouldn’t have left the Democrats with fewer than 200 House seats for the first time in more than six decades if they were remotely ambivalent about Obamacare. But given that exit polling is the only polling that clearly screens for actual voters, it is important to interpret its results correctly and to rebut the administration’s claims.
First off, the exit poll question didn’t ask voters whether they want to “repeal and replace” Obamacare — the Republicans’ actual position. Because almost no one wants, or is advocating, the pre-Obamacare status quo (although even that would be infinitely better than Obamacare), fewer voters likely picked “repeal” than would have picked “repeal and replace.”
Second, when a poll offers two positive answers (from a given perspective) and only one negative answer, this typically inflates the total number of people who will answer positively. The actual exit poll question read, “What should Congress do with the new health-care law?” The available answers were, “Expand it,” “Leave it as is,” and “Repeal it”—two of which, from the administration’s perspective, were positive. If a fourth answer, “Repeal it and replace it,” had been added, with the third answer perhaps being changed to “Repeal it and don’t replace it,” then the number of people answering either “Repeal it and replace it” or “Repeal it and don’t replace it” would almost surely have been even higher than the number who answered “Repeal it” to the question as written.
This more neutral approach — providing an equal number of positive and negative answers — is utilized by Rasmussen. In Rasmussen’s Election Day poll of those who voted, 59 percent said they either “strongly favor” repeal (48 percent) or “somewhat favor” it (11 percent), while only 40 percent said they either “somewhat oppose” repeal (8 percent) or “strongly oppose” it (32 percent).
But despite its imperfections, the exit poll question as written shows that repealing Obamacare is clearly the most popular thing to do with it — and by a wide margin: 48 percent want to repeal it, compared to only 31 percent who back the runner-up (and politically dead-on-arrival) notion of expanding it.
Yet President Obama wants to take this obvious rebuke and try to turn it into a neutral (even the administration agrees it’s not a positive) by adding the other two responses together. But the 31 percent of voters who prefer to expand Obamacare don’t all necessarily support it as written. And the 16 percent who prefer to leave Obamacare alone don’t all necessarily favor its expansion over its repeal. In truth, these voters are split between two mutually exclusive courses of action (stand pat or expand) — neither of which enjoys the support of even one-third of the electorate.
In any event, one can play this game in either direction: If we combine two of the three answers, as President Obama has done, we find that voters oppose Obamacare’s expansion by better than 2 to 1 (64 to 31 percent). Even more embarrassingly to the president (one would think), voters oppose keeping Obamacare in its current form by almost 5 to 1 (79 to 16 percent). When only about one in six voters supports the survival of your signature legislation as written, that’s not a strong endorsement of your presidency to date.
Furthermore, as Bill Kristol observed on Fox News Sunday, it’s not like Obama can now pivot to the center and leave Obamacare behind. President Clinton was fortunate enough to be able to distance himself from the electoral wreckage left in Hillarycare’s wake. But Obamacare and Barack Obama are a lot like Disneyland and Walt Disney: You can’t say the one without immediately thinking of the other.
At the ballot box, as well as in the exit polls, voters showed their support for repeal and their opposition to the current overhaul. In comparable districts, anti-Obamacare Democrats won reelection at twice the rate of pro-Obamacare Democrats. Put otherwise, in swing or moderately Republican-leaning districts (which are essentially the only districts in which both pro- and anti-Obamacare Democrats can be found), after individual Democrats cast their votes for Obamacare, these members of Congress cut their chances of gaining reelection approximately in half.
Moreover, as the November Kaiser Health Tracking Survey shows, “Nearly six in ten (59 percent) of the ‘health care voters’ — those “who said that [health-care] reform was one of the top two factors influencing their vote” — “backed a Republican candidate for Congress.” Just 19 percent of “health care voters” think Obamacare would make them and their family “better off.”
As these numbers strongly suggest, Obamacare is the principal reason why a huge, nearly 80-seat Democratic majority in the House will become a very large, roughly 50-seat Republican majority shortly after New Year’s. President Obama nevertheless insists that half of all voters are with him in thinking that passing Obamacare “was the right thing to do.” This clearly answers the question posed by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie at the president’s post-election press conference: “[I]s it possible that voters can conclude, you're still not getting it?”
Jeffrey H. Anderson is a Pacific Research Institute senior fellow.