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Voting For Obamacare Will Not Help Save Democrats' Majorities

Voting For Obamacare Will Not Help Save Democrats' Majorities

By Sean Trende - September 2, 2009

There’s a myth circulating in the blogosphere and the punditry, and it is threatening the Democrats’ majorities. It goes like this: In 1994, Democrats failed to pass a healthcare bill, and they lost their majorities. Ergo, if Democrats fail to pass a healthcare bill in 2009, they will be at serious risk of losing their majorities in 2010, so to save their majorities, they should make certain above all else to get something passed.

The list of Democrats echoing this theme is lengthy. Steve Benen, Mark Kleiman, and Matt Yglesias have all made variants of this argument. The President himself reportedly argued back in July that failure to pass this bill would destroy his Presidency as it did Clinton’s (as did Republican Senator Jim DeMint).

The frustrating thing about this myth is not only that it is becoming so widespread, but also that it is so deeply misguided. The Democrats did not lose Congress in 1994 because they failed to pass health care reform. They lost Congress in 1994 because they failed to rally the public behind health care reform. Had Democrats successfully sold Clintoncare to the public and then passed it, their majorities might have been saved. But had Democrats gone ahead and passed it anyway, under the conditions that existed in summer of 1994, their losses likely would have been even greater than they ultimately experienced in November.

To fully appreciate this, we need to gain a better understanding of what the 1994 elections were about. 1994 was fundamentally a culling of Democrats who were too liberal for their Republican-leaning districts. Republicans defeated 34 incumbents that year. Twenty six of these incumbents came from districts that had Republican PVIs[1]; of the remaining eight incumbents, one was under indictment, one had proclaimed how proud he was to grow his own marijuana, four came from Washington state (which had a tsunami-within-a-tsunami), and two were just kind of unlucky.

There were two controversial pieces of legislation that defined the Clinton Administration for Republican-leaning voters: the assault weapons ban and the first Clinton budget (a.k.a. the tax hike). If we look at the fifteen Democrats who voted against both pieces of legislation, only one lost (she represented a district that gave Bush a 15-point win in 1992). In fact, about half of them saw their share of the vote increase or stay roughly the same from 1992!

Let’s move on to Democratic incumbents who represented Republican-leaning districts who voted for only one of these two pieces of legislation. There were thirty-seven such Democrats. The casualty rate here is a little higher; thirteen of them, or thirty-five percent of them, lost. And of the twenty-two Democrats from Republican-leaning districts who voted for both pieces of controversial legislation, ten of them (45%) lost.

In other words, the problem for Democrats in 1994 was not that they didn’t support Clinton’s agenda enough. It was that they got too far out in front of their conservative-leaning districts and supported the President too much.

We can use a more quantitative approach. I constructed a simple regression model to try to measure what factors played a role in Democrats’ downfall in 1994. If you want the nitty gritty of the model, you can click this footnote [2]. But the bottom line is that, holding all other things equal, a Democrat in a Republican district who voted for the assault weapons ban lost 4.2 percentage points off of his 1992 numbers. If the same Democrat voted for the Clinton budget, she lost 3.7 points. In other words, these two votes alone could take a Democrat who won a comfortable election with 56 percent of the vote in 1992, and turn her into a loser in 1994.

Those who argue that what Democrats needed in 1994 was to pass health reform are essentially arguing that what Karan English needed to do to save her career was vote for another controversial Clinton initiative. This makes about as much sense as arguing that what former Connecticut Republican Congressman Rob Simmons needed to do to save his Congressional career in 2006 in his heavily Democratic district was vote to privatize social security, or to try to deport all illegal immigrants to Mexico. I daresay that casting either of those votes would have increased his margin substantially past the 400 or so votes he lost by.

What does this mean for 2010? Obama’s health care plan is not particularly popular right now. Rasmussen reports that 53% of Americans oppose the health care bill working through Congress, and that for the first time ever, Republicans are more trusted on health care than are Democrats.

Other polling numbers are just as bad. A June Pew poll shows that the percentage of people who think that the health care system needs fundamental change or complete rebuilding is about the same today as it was in June of 1994. According to a February NBC News poll, almost twenty percent fewer people today say they would pay higher taxes so that everyone could have health insurance (49%) than said so in 1993 (66%). It’s also down from 2007 (53%).

Democrats may counter that some polls show that the actual pieces of Obama’s plan have majority support. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that what the public understands to be in Obama’s plan isn’t popular. Polling from 2005 showed that Bush’s actual plan for social security – allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private retirement accounts – split the public 50-50, while people disapproved of the perceived Bush plan – “privatization” – by a 2:1 margin. Perception is what matters, and right now the public is against what it perceives as being the Obama plan; the late summer push to educate voters seems to have failed.

Nor can Democrats likely count on the public "waking up" to what a great bill they've passed by 2010.  Key portions of it, such as the "public option," don't come into being until well after the election.  In 1994, most voters should have realized that the Clinton tax package didn't raise their taxes, but that reality didn't set in until 1996 or so.  And remember, we're talking about voters in Republican-leaning districts here, who aren't particularly ideologically disposed to like the plan, period.

Right now, almost all of the 60 or so Democrats in Republican PVI districts have cast a controversial (in Republican districts) vote on Obama’s stimulus plan. Many of them have voted for cap-and-trade. Unless public opinion changes substantially, many of them will be pressured to cast an extremely controversial vote on the health bill. These Democrats don’t need this vote.

The 1994 elections weren’t caused by Democrats not supporting Clinton enough. They were caused by Democrats supporting him too much. Democrats who support President Obama more than their districts allow risk suffering a similar fate in 2010, and there are enough of them to cost the Democrats their majority.

As for President Obama, he needs to remember that the failure of Clintoncare didn't mark the destruction of Clinton's Presidency. In fact, it marked its rejuvenation. It set that Administration back on the centrist track that saw him leave office with 60%+ approval ratings. I don't know whether America is center-right or center-left, but I do know that whatever the answer, "center" deserves to be in "all caps" font. The President and his party would do better to remember this.

[1] A PVI is simply a measurement of how much more Republican a district is than the country as a whole. In other words, John McCain got about 46% of the two-party vote in 2008 nationally. If he got 48% in a particular district, we list it as leaning toward the Republicans by two points. If he got 44%, it leans toward Democrats by two points. Due to the complications Perot’s 1992 and 1996 runs pose at the district level (he took from Bush and Clinton evenly nationwide, but probably drew disproportionately from Bush in the South and West and disproportionately from Clinton in the Northeast) we calculate 1994 PVI by averaging the district’s PVI for 1988 (obviously under the 1992 lines, which is calculated in the 1994 Almanac of American Politics) and 2000.

[2] My dataset was the Democrats who represented Republican PVI districts, and who had major-party opposition both years. The dependent variable (what we’re trying to explain) was the change in the incumbent’s share of the two party vote from 1992 to 1994. So we are trying to figure out how various factors affected an incumbent’s vote share, whether that incumbent lost or not.

For our independent variables I first used the district’s PVI. I used a dummy variable (1 for yes, 0 for no) for the assault weapon ban and the vote on the Clinton budget package. I also theorized that the higher a Democrats’ share of the vote in 1992 the more it would decrease in 1994, since he or she would have father to fall, so I used his vote share in 1992 as an independent variable. Finally, I included a variable for the increase in the challenger’s expenditures from 1992 to 1994, to try to measure the effects of improvements in challenger quality.

The adjusted r-square ends up being .45, meaning the model explains almost half of why, say, Glen Browder (D, AL-03) gained 2 points while Don Johnson, Jr. (D, GA-10, not the actor) lost nineteen points. That’s pretty good, given how many variables influence an election.

Our independent variables almost all come back significant and pointing the way we’d expect. An increase of $200,000 in challenger funding from 1992-1994 results in a decrease in about a point for the incumbent (p=0.002). An increase in the incumbent’s 1992 vote share of a point results in a drop of about a half point in 1994 (p=.00000016). The two dummy variables come back with p’s of .004 and .008. Only the PVI variable is not significant at the 95% confidence level (p=.25), though it is pointed the right direction (the coefficient is -.19). This makes some sense, as these districts’ Republican leanings were probably drags on their Democratic Congressmen in both 1992 and 1994, and so wouldn’t affect the change in the share of the two-party vote.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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