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The Canary in the Coal Mine (Updated)

Will Congress heed the warning on their Obamacare exemptions?

8:54 AM, Sep 23, 2013 • By HEATHER R. HIGGINS and WILLIAM W. PASCOE III
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The poll data is clear and cuts across party lines: 92 percent of the public does not think it is right that Congress and their staff are letting the Obama administration exempt them from the costs of Obamacare. Yet it seems many in Congress still want to dismiss these findings in hopes that these sentiments won't translate into actual voter preferences.

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Incumbents facing reelections shouldn't fool themselves. A recent real-world deployment of the issue shows it can powerfully impact candidates’ prospects. 

We tested the effect of the congressional exemption issue in six different 2014 races, which represent different election archetypes. We launched incumbent-specific, small but targeted, week-long communications campaigns, using mail, phones and internet, (but no TV or radio), directed at 7,500 likely voters. Then we analyzed the criteria regularly used by campaign strategists to measure the strength of an incumbent’s reelection campaign: the "hard re-elect", or the percentage of voters who say they will vote to reelect the incumbent; the "hard vote against", or the percentage of voters who say they will vote against an incumbent; and the "ballot test", or how the incumbent fares when matched up against his challenger.

The incumbents against whom we tested the issue were: Sen. Mark Udall, Democrat from Colorado; Sen. Mary Landrieu, Democrat from Louisiana; Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina; Rep. John Tierney, Democrat from Massachusetts; Rep. Jim Matheson, Democrat from Utah; and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, Republican from Idaho.

First archetype: How would the issue play in a GOP primary election, if the incumbent had taken the special exemption? We tested the case of Lindsey Graham, who already has three announced GOP primary challengers. After one week of messaging to the target universe, our after-action survey showed that his hard reelect number dropped 14 points, from 32/68 to 25/75; his hard vote against grew by 14 points, from 18/82 to 25/75; and he lost 12 points on the ballot test.

We also tested Mike Simpson of Idaho, who is being primaried by a Club for Growth-backed challenger. Reports say Simpson is also one of the louder voices objecting to language to remove the special exemption from the continuing resolution the House just passed and sent to the Senate.

He may want to rethink that: After the messaging, his hard reelect dropped 10 points, from 29/71 to 24/76; his hard vote against grew by 20 points, from 11/89 to 21/79; and he lost a whopping 29 points on the ballot test, falling from a 49/15 lead to a meager 30/25 lead. Any strategist will tell you an incumbent polling at just 30 percent on the ballot test is in serious trouble.

Clearly, the issue works for a challenger against an incumbent in a GOP primary. What about general election match-ups?

Mary Landrieu is a vulnerable red state Democrat. We pitted her against her likely general election challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy. After one week’s messaging, Landrieu’s hard reelect dropped 8 points, from 29/71 to 25/75; her hard vote against increased 16 points, from 39/61 to 47/53; but she only lost 2 points on the ballot test, moving from 32/57 to 30/57, largely because Cassidy is already maxing out the vote for a Republican in Louisiana. 

Jim Matheson is also a vulnerable red state House Democrat who fought off a tough challenger in 2012. That challenger, Republican Mia Love, is challenging him again in 2014. After one week’s messaging, his hard reelect dropped 4 points from 33/67 to 31/69; his hard vote against increased by 6 points, from 23/77 to 26/74; and he lost 9 points on the ballot test to Love, which turned a 48/34 lead into a 42/37 lead, just outside the margin of error.

So in addition to working in a GOP primary, the issue affects red state Democrats running for reelection, if the GOP challenger drives the necessary contrast.

Finally, what about Democrats who are in seemingly secure seats?

John Tierney is a Massachusetts Democrat who defeated a tough challenger named Richard Tisei in 2012. Tisei is challenging him again in 2014. After one week’s messaging, Tierney saw virtually no movement against him on either his hard reelect or his hard vote against, but he dropped 6 points on the ballot test, moving from 39/29 to a much tighter 38/34.

Mark Udall of Colorado is also considered safe in his seat but could face several challengers. We tested him against former Rep. Bob Beauprez, the 2006 GOP nominee for Governor. After the messaging, Udall dropped just 2 points in his hard reelect, from 28/72 to 27/73, but he saw his hard vote against increase by 10 points, from 28/72 to 38/62, and he lost 7 points on the ballot, dropping from a 38/40 dead heat to a 35/44 deficit. 

So with a minimal push, the issue makes inroads even in places most analysts thought beyond reach.

The results are the political equivalent of the canary dying in the coal mine; perhaps Congress will finally pay attention and reverse this exemption this week in the Senate or else in the House as part of the continuing resolution negotiation.

Some may think that if they make a feint at undoing the exemption ruling, but watch that fail, that they can then avail themselves of the subsidy. But that is not the case: If members don’t decline the subsidy for themselves and their staffs, the public states that they still see this as preferring themselves and their paid staff over all their unpaid volunteers and constituents, and the price will be nearly as steep. In Mike Simpson's Idaho district, for instance, 55 percent of GOP primary voters said they would vote against Simpson to send a message even if he voted against Obamacare but decided to keep the exemption for himself and his staff; just 7 percent said they would vote for him anyway.

As for the strategists, the message is clear: Get your incumbents on the right side of the issue, or spend election night on the edge of your seat; get your challengers on the right side of the issue, and prepare to win where you didn’t previously think possible.

Heather Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women's Voice. William W. Pascoe III consults on political strategy with IWV. IWV is the creator of the #NoWashingtonExemption petition.

Update: The office of Mike Simpson, the Idaho Republican, responds:

"Congressman Mike Simpson strongly opposes any effort to give special treatment to Members of Congress or staff," says spokesperson Nikki Watts. "He made this clear when Pres. Obama first mentioned this unfair exemption on Aug 2. He has also cosponsored H.R. 3076, the James Madison Congressional Accountability Act, which blocks a subsidy for the President, Vice President, executive branch, and all of Congress and staff in purchasing health plans. Congressman Simpson also supports H.R. 3071, the No Special Treatment for Congress Act, that would ensure no funds are used to implement the President’s ruling and H.R. 3067, the No Obamacare Subsidies for Members of Congress Act, would prohibit a government subsidy for the purchase of health plans by Members of Congress only."

Watts adds that Simpson would "absolutely support" including the exemption in the CR that defunds Obamacare.

Update II: A statement from Simpson himself, provided to THE WEEKLY STANDARD: “I did not speak at conference last Wednesday," Simpsons says. "I want to be clear that I am opposed to the member and staff exemption and I am a cosponsor of the DeSantis bill that would eliminate the exemption. The statement from unnamed sources regarding my position is simply not true."

UPDATE III: Check out "The Strength of the Anti-Obamacare Exemption Message" for more.

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