As we noted Tuesday night, Republican Ken Cuccinell's defeat in Virginia's gubernatorial race is being pitched as a victory for conservatives, who argue that the closer-than-expected results and exit polling proves voters were angry about Obamacare. This is not a good argument.
You can blame this segment from CNN's John King, in part. He isolates two points of data from the network's exit polling to make the case that "the roll-out of Obamacare [was] a big factor in the end." He bases this on two points of data:
Virginians oppose Obamacare by a 53 to 46 margin…
…And of those who oppose Obamacare, 81 percent supported Cuccinelli.
And there you go.
Unfortunately, however, it's by no means that simple. In a race as close as Virginia's, a large number of the exit poll results could be used to demonstrate the most significant factor. McAuliffe won those concerned about abortion by 35 points; why isn't that the key?
But the main reason this argument is flawed, as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein points out, is that those exit poll numbers are completely in line with national results. In other words, Virginia is no more anti-Obamacare than, say, New Jersey, where the Republican actually won.
In the above segment, it appears that King is using exit poll numbers re-weighted to represent the turnout the network had at that time. Its original data indicated a 48 percent to 50 percent split in Virginia and a 49-50 split in New Jersey. But even the weighted data matches almost perfectly to a new Reuters poll, which puts the approve-disapprove split at 47.1-52.9. (We'll get to that last pair of columns later.)
Cover up the identifiers at the bottom and you'd be hard-pressed to determine which of these sets of data suggest much more robust opposition to Obamacare.
Nor is that "81 percent backed Cuccinelli" data point terribly significant. The same question about Obamacare was asked in exit polls during the 2012 presidential election. In Virginia, 48 percent of voters opposed the law at that point — 2 points fewer than the unweighted exit polls showed on Tuesday. (See above.) But of those that opposed the law nationally, 83 percent supported Romney. The graph at left shows how support for the Democratic and Republican candidates broke down in 2012 and 2013 — the former nationally, the latter in Virginia. They are, for all intents and purposes besides punditry, exactly the same.
In 2012 and 2013, Virginia had largely the same perception of Obamacare. In the first case, it elected a Democrat, Barack Obama, by 3 points. In the second, it elected a Democrat, Terry McAuliffe by 3 points.