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By Jay Cost

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Health Care Reform Has Endangered the Democratic Majority

This Politico piece by Jim VandeHei, Alex Isenstadt, and Mike Allen got a lot of play last week:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a "recovery summer" is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble.

There is no mention of health care reform in this piece. The economy is referenced several times. So is the President's inability to control the narrative. Even the Ground Zero Mosque is mentioned as a reason why the House is now in jeopardy. But not health care.

It has become conventional wisdom that the decline of the Democrats has mostly to do with the economy and little - if anything - to do with health care. This is Jonathan Alter from Saturday:

Health-care reform was seen by many cable chatterers as shaping the outcome of the November midterm elections but almost certainly won't. Nor will the flap over the planned mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero. To make sure, Obama defended the constitutional principle at stake, but backed off on the specific siting. Why get tied down by another hot-button distraction, especially one that keeps the Muslim story alive in ways that help no one but the media? The collapse of the Greek economy, by contrast, is an example of something real, not hyped by cable news, whose reverberations first spoiled Obama's PR plan for a "Recovery Summer" and now could sink the Democrats in the midterms.

So, Greek economy, yes. Health care...no?

This meme is wrong. The Democrats' control of the House did not become tenuous recently. At best, some of the more immediate warning signs - e.g. individual incumbents like Betty Sutton now appear to be in jeopardy - have manifested themselves recently. But there has been a real danger of losing the House for some time, a danger that predates "Recovery Summer" and goes back to the health care debate.

First of all, the fact that the health care bill is no longer the topic du jore does not mean it is no longer an issue. The real questions are whether the health care bill moved voters away from the Democrats, and whether those voters have since moved back now that the debate is over. The answers are yes - the debate moved voters away from the Democrats; and no - the voters have not come back.

Here is the 2009-2010 track of the RCP generic ballot average:

Generic Ballot.jpg

This metric historically has a Democratic tilt, yet it showed the two parties at parity a year ago. That was, you will recall, after Democratic incumbents were excoriated at town hall meetings all summer. Only about 40% of people supported the bill at that point. With the President's late summer speech to Congress, the Democratic generic ballot numbers ticked up, but the GOP pulled back to within even of the Democrats by mid-November, when the House was debating the bill.

All of this happened during the Third and Fourth Quarters of 2009, when GDP finally turned positive then jumped up by 5.0%.

It is very hard to win the House of Representatives when you lose the House popular vote. And the polls have suggested for a year that Democrats were in danger of doing just that.

It is also very hard to win the House of Representatives when Independents bolt to the other side en masse. Republicans and Democrats split Independents in the 2004 House elections. In 2006 they went for the Democrats by 18 points. They went for the Democrats by 8 points in 2008.

In Gallup's most recent polling, President Obama won the approval of just 40% of Independent adults. That's deep in the danger zone, and the President has been in trouble with Independents for some time. Independent adults have given him less than 50% approval in the Gallup poll since November, 2009. Again, that's when the economy was growing and the health care debate was on the front page. And that is among all adults. Among likely voters, Rasmussen found around that time that 60% of Independents disapproved of the President's performance, with 45% strongly disapproving.

We can also point to the 2009 off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which occurred during the health care debate. Democrats suffered massive defections among Independent voters, bringing Republicans to victory in both states. Something similar happened in the Massachusetts Senate election. Republicans do not win New England Senate seats by bringing the conservative base out to the polls! Scott Brown is a United States Senator today because Independents in the Bay State were unhappy with the course the national government had been taking.

Partisans on both sides tell themselves stories about why they're up, why they're down, and why the other side is where it is. These stories usually contain at least a grain of truth, but they also help encourage ideologues in the face of an impending rejection by the electorate. Democrats ignored the political problem of health care in the fall and winter - arguing that Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds were bad candidates, that voters had been turned off by the health care bill because of the process, and that they would come around once the many benefits kicked in. Now, they're pointing to the economy as the only significant reason why the party is in trouble.

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was so deeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats' fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority - Independent voters - began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President's job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Reconstructing the Democrats' meme, we can fairly say that the economy is a huge problem for the party. Of this, there can be no doubt. We can also say that the stalled recovery denied the Democrats a chance to win back the voters they lost over health care. But the process and passage of health care reform were crucial elements in the story. That's when the party started losing the voters it needs to retain control of the government.

-Jay Cost