When the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) was signed into law, on March 23, 2010, Democrats had ostensibly mastered a difficult task – pass a massive domestic spending bill, pushing the bounds of progressive legislation, that was at odds with public opinion. It was unpopular with Republican voters who chaffed at the Essential Benefits requirement that any health insurance needed to have, but it was also unpopular with many Democratic voters who felt it did not go far enough by failing to provide a public health insurance option. RealClearPolitics, the polling aggregator, tracked support for the Bill at only 39.7%, as opposed to 50.4 % opposition, just one day before passage of the Bill. From 2010 to late 2016, Americans consistently opposed the Bill with a 10 percentage point margin.
Then, in January 2017, for the first time on record after ObamaCare passed, RealClearPolitics showed support for ObamaCare as higher than opposition – a curious development given that the underlying law did not change. Of course, the context had, and talk of repeal was omnipresent in the political discourse, making the threat of losing newly gained healthcare insurance a very real prospect for American citizens. We have a related, but different take: The Democratic party has a serious messaging problem. ObamaCare, described as vastly unpopular by many, was in fact just the opposite: extremely popular with Americans. It is just that voters and legislators did not know. How did that happen?
First, we should note that part of the bad polling numbers was due to bad polling and misreading of the polls. By framing ObamaCare in starkly partisan terms, pollsters managed to categorize many Americans as opposing the law even though they were in support of everything it did: more government subsidies, more comprehensive insurance, and direct coverage through the Medicaid expansion. For example, we found strong support for major components when we polled Americans on ObamaCare on November 28, 2016, including majority support for the Medicaid expansion, banning healthcare providers from denying coverage, a government-created marketplace for insurance, and requiring healthcare providers to keep children on the insurance, with the lone exception of the individual mandate (Figure 1). At the same time, we registered the typical 40 percent support for ObamaCare (or Affordable Care Act, no matter how we phrased it).
The topline polling evolved when Americans started to learn what these Essential Benefits were and began to grasp that the scope and impact of the Medicaid expansion, shifting their opinion on the ACA from hated government regulation to necessary coverage and benefits. Until Congress began debating taking away ObamaCare, Americans had little idea what ObamaCare did beyond regulation of markets. The Democratic party had completely failed to communicate the benefits of its policies, making the polling for the bill way less popular with both Republicans and Democrats than the actual bill was.
Believing the polling constrained Democratic legislators: it is conceivable that Democrats, would they have been able to message the content of earlier versions of progressive healthcare initiatives, could have passed a much more progressive bill without suffering some of the last-minute bruises the Affordable Care Act endured. In effect, in believing these poll results Democrats neutered their own bill, thinking it was at the bounds of acceptable progressive legislation, rather than to the right of the voting population.
This failure of communication does not stop at ObamaCare. A vast part of the population supports core Democratic policies, especially on the economic dimension, but does not claim to support the “Democratic policy”. Vast quantities of voters love the Democratic policy, but do not know it is the Democratic policy. If public polling continues to concentrate on documenting which parties’ policies Americans prefer, but neglects to poll support for the content of the policy, we have a problem: A citizenship that appears to be much more conservative than it actually is, leading to more conservative policies from representatives who think they are responding to their constituency. Indeed, this could be the driver behind the recently documented phenomenon that most law-makers estimate the preferences of their constituents as more conservative than they actually are.
We document this disconnect between the level of stated support for the content of Democratic policies (generally pretty high) and stated support for the Democratic party’s plan (generally close to parity with Republicans) on a number of issues. Stripped of any partisan frame and with the content of the policy clearly defined, there is overwhelming support for the Democratic policy position on healthcare (post-ObamaCare) and overwhelming disapproval for the Republican policies on healthcare. But, only a slight plurality of voters claims they support the Democrats’ plan over the Republicans’. “Do you support allowing any American to buy Medicare, if they choose to?” is supported by 82 percent of voters, including 80 percent of Republicans. “Should the US allow healthcare insurance to be sold that does NOT cover pre-existing conditions, maternity care, and mental health?” is supported by 36 percent of the voting population, failing to even get 40 percent of Republicans. This is the policy backed by Republican leadership in Congress and coming to fruition in several states. When we simply ask respondents which party’s healthcare policies they prefer, we get a much more muted picture. Yes, a plurality of voters supports the Democratic plan, but support is almost at parity, with 41 percent supporting the Democratic plan and 39 percent supporting the Republican plan – despite the fact that the same respondents had overwhelmingly voiced their support for the actual policies of the Democrats.
Medicare buy-in is the policy supported by many Democratic senators and should be a core policy topic in 2018. Our polling documents the fruitful grounds this approach falls on, at a time when the DCCC, the organization to elect Democrats to Congress, urges candidates to take more restrained stances on healthcare. The DCCC is reading the same misleading polls that urged constraint in the formation of ObamaCare and meek defensiveness in its defense.
The story for taxation is similar. We polled the two pillars of the 2017 Republican tax bill: A majority think that the tax rate for households earning more than $250,000 should be higher (55 percent) and that the tax rate for corporations should be higher (58 percent). Even more, only a small minority of Republicans support lower taxes for high income households (17 percent) and corporation (17 percent), despite dramatic tax cuts being the main accomplishment of the Trump administration. Yet again, the partisan preference on taxes looks very different: Just 39 percent prefer the tax policies of Democrats, en par with 39 percent supporting the Republican policy. Not exactly overwhelming considering the differing levels of support for the actual tax policies of the two parties.
Not surprisingly, the story for non-economic issues is slightly different. Take gun safety for instance. Our polling documents majority support for Republican policies (reciprocal conceal & carry), and Democratic policies (restricting the amount of bullets), and immigration is decisively less popular, with the exception of the fate of Dreamers (52 percent support a pathway to citizenship and an additional 26 percent support allowing Dreamers to stay and work). Yet, we believe this set of polling comes with a set of clear lessons for Democratic candidates for this coming election cycle: Run on economic issues, foremost taxation and healthcare, and, we feel crazy having to say this, but make sure voters understand what the Democratic party stands for. The vast overlap between public opinion and progressive policies could be fruitful grounds on which Democrats can take back the House 2018.
Note on Methods: We collect the data via smartphone with Pollfish. At the time, this approach was a new and exciting way to collect data (and possibly the only useful mode going forward, as landlines become obsolete). Since we did not have a representative sample of Americans, we made use of the advent of Big Data and advances in machine learning and statistics to process the raw data and get representative estimates not only for Americans overall, but for more fine-grained demographic categories. Today, this methodology is well validated by the academic community, our prediction of the 2016 general election, and a number of validation studies.