Nate Silver surveys the polls taken over the week, and finds...well, really I don't care what he finds.
Look, even if we're just talking about the fall elections, it doesn't matter what people think -- or, more to the point, what they'll say to pollsters -- on March 26. It just doesn't. No one knows what kind of issue health care will be in November. As Ezra Klein says, the midterm elections will probably be about the economy, not about health care. But you know what? That "about" is a tricky little animal, there. There's no guarantee that candidates will be talking about the economy. But whether they do or not, the economy is going to be what drives things, because it always does. If the economy is bad, people are going to think that Obama is a lousy president and that Democrats are losers, and therefore are going to respond negatively to questions about health care reform. Whether that produces an election in which candidates are talking a lot about health care or not will be driven by internal polling and focus groups (and, to some extent, by bargaining and competition within party coalitions), but the bottom line for election purposes is that single issues, even something that seems as momentous as the health care act, don't really push a lot of votes.
Nor can one poll the alternatives. Silver supposes that at this point, it's better for Democrats to have passed the bill than to have failed to pass it, and I strongly agree with that -- failure would, indeed, likely have demoralized Democratic activists and perhaps even directly demoralized voters. He also supposes that:
I think if you polled Democratic strategists and they were being honest, they'd probably concede that -- electorally-speaking -- Democrats would have been better off if they'd found a different direction last year, focusing perhaps on financial reform and then only turning to health care if their numbers warranted it.I don't know what strategists might think -- they have a professional bias in favor of believing that elections are more manipulable than academic research has found -- but my reading of the elections literature, along with the way Congress and the media work, suggest to me that it would be foolish to choose legislative strategy in 2009 based on the 2010 elections. People just don't care that much about issues. And it's impossible to guess at the alternative scenarios.
A couple other things to add. First, as I've argued, thinking of health care reform as a choice for Obama and the Democrats gets it wrong. Obama was able to win the nomination only by promising to make health care reform a priority. He, and virtually every Democratic candidate for Congress, campaigned on health care reform. Presidents don't take office, and Members of Congress don't take office, with blank slates; they take office constrained, and often severely constrained, by the promises they've made while running. If Obama had abandoned health care reform, he would have broken promises and lost the support of his election coalition. Presidents can do that sort of thing, but it imposes high costs.
The second thing, and what I've been harping on all week, is that it's far too early to know how health care plays out -- mainly because no one has experienced the perceived good and bad about the new law. Medicare recipients have all sorts of vague fears about it now; over time, those will be replaced by tangible changes, including I guess rebate checks this year for those who are in the donut hole. On the down side, if Advantage cuts do harm customers, they will be very aware of it. And then there are the scare stories to come, in which Republicans blame any terrible health or insurance outcome, including raised premiums, on the new act. The Democrats are betting that all of that works out, on balance, in their favor, but there's really no way to know right now -- and polling is not the way to get at it. The instant reactions people have just aren't likely to predict how they'll feel about health care reform six months (or years) down the road, and they're even less likely to predict how those reactions will affect their voting behavior. One thing I could guess, however, is that the benefits of financial regulation are highly unlikely to be rewarded by voters, since those benefits are largely intangible to most voters (yes, I know, a new financial panic would be plenty tangible, but no one ever rewards pols for avoiding a disaster before it starts).
So: the effects of health care reform on the 2010 elections are apt to be small, consisting mostly of avoiding disaster for the Democrats if the bill had failed; beyond that, it's too soon to know what small effects there will be, and polling is the wrong way to get at those effects.