The conventional wisdom says that the botched Obamacare rollout and the program's general unpopularity are dooming Democratic chances in November, but it's wrong. Even with Obamacare's problems compounded by multiple tweaks and delays (including the newest), Democrats would be in a similarly bad position, no matter what.
There's a good overview of the two main parties' strengths and weaknesses from Thomas Edsall in The New York Times, using the upcoming midterm elections as a way to talk about the long-term prospects of each party. It's thorough, if unsurprising: the Democratic strength with young and non-white voters is likely to be an asset in 2016 and beyond.
Edsall also pins the party's current problems on Obamacare. "The damage inflicted on the Democratic Party by the dysfunctional website and the reaction to it is hard to overestimate," he writes, noting poll data from Real Clear Politics on a generic congressional ballot. "As the figure illustrates, the generic vote shifted from a 5.5 percentage point Democratic advantage on Oct. 15, 2013, to a 2.5 percentage point Republican advantage on Dec. 2." That's a very brief version of the long-running argument: the Florida special election showed that people are freaked about the law; nearly half the country wants to repeal it.
What Edsall glosses over, though, is that the congressional ballot data was artificially inflated by the complete train wreck of the government shutdown, which completely tanked Republican poll numbers. The Healthcare.gov mess certainly meant that the Democrats lost an opportunity to capitalize on a surprising lead — a lead that was always bound to decline to some extent.
In fact, Obama and the Democrats hoped that Obamacare would provide a bulwark against the natural advantage Republicans have seen in midterm elections over the past few decades. As The Hill noted last week, Democratic leaders have consistently predicted that the public would embrace Obamacare as it rolled out. That the roll-out was a mess meant, among other things, that any positive reaction to the bill would be muted.
If Obamacare isn't to blame for the Democrats' difficult election cycle, what is? For one thing, the most tightly contested races are happening in areas where the Democrats are weakest. "What we’re really seeing this cycle," Real Clear Politics election analyst Sean Trende told Edsall, "is a function of the Democrats’ declining ability to win white voters, especially in the South and border states." Yes, Democrats are doing better with black and Latino voters, but those changes "simply are not helping them in many of the most competitive states this cycle: South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Michigan, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Iowa."
There's another demographic at play. Older voters consistently vote more regularly than do younger voters, as the chart at right from Pew Research shows. (In 2012, US News had a good analysis of some of the reasons why that was the case.) On Wednesday, Gallup pointed out why that is bad news for Democrats: older voters continue to skew more Republican. Seniors were more Democratic than younger Americans for more than 20 years until 2006. They've become less Democratic since then, and "have shown an outright preference for the Republican Party since 2010."
And Republicans have a natural turnout advantage anyway. According to American National Election Studies, Republican voters had a higher turnout rate than Democrats in every election between 1956 and 2008 except one: 1990.
But 2014 is likely going to be particularly bad thanks to two other factors.
The first, as we noted last week, is the unpopularity of Barack Obama. People are prepared to vote against candidates that are aligned with or support the White House, making Obama persona non grata on the campaign trail. It's tempting to assume that's because of Obamacare. But it isn't — at least, not entirely.
As you can see on the graph at right, which uses Real Clear Politics data, Obama's popularity took a big hit in the wake of the Healthcare.gov mess. But notice the trend of that red line, which marks his unpopularity. Since November 2012, when ads promoting Obama dropped off the air, his unpopularity has increased consistently. Take away that Obmacare-related bump, and where he is now looks like where he would have been anyway.
The other factor making life hard for the Democrats is the advent of Americans For Prosperity, a well-funded, brash entrant onto the political scene. It's legitimately contending with the Republican National Committee for attention and resources from Republican candidates, and, as Cook Political Report pointed out on Wednesday, it's already out-advertising Democrats in contested Senate and House races. That lets the RNC hold its powder until November.
What's AFP advertising about? Obamacare, as it did heavily in that Florida special election. But do you really think that if Obamacare had been rolled out flawlessly, AFP wouldn't have found something else to criticize Obama about?
November will be bad for Democrats, who hoped that Obama or Obamacare might have provided an energy boost that brought normally reticent Democrats to the polls. That won't happen. But if Obamacare never existed, it probably wouldn't have happened either.
Update, 11:30 a.m.: A new point of data that's worth conveying. The Kaiser Family Foundation's ongoing polling indicates that opposition to Obamacare is dropping. That's another point worth making: November is still a long way off.