Phony Obamacare perception war: Why the GOP is mounting a last-minute Obamacare assault

Republican ads attacking Obamacare spiked in October. They're not moving voters, they're manufacturing a "mandate"

Published October 27, 2014 3:28PM (EDT)

Scott Brown, Mitch McConnell, Thom Tillis                                  (AP/Jim Cole/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo montage by Salon)
Scott Brown, Mitch McConnell, Thom Tillis (AP/Jim Cole/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo montage by Salon)

The phony Obamacare perception war is officially in full swing. Last week, Karl Rove wrote a conspicuously timed column for the Wall Street Journal arguing that the Affordable Care Act was once again the “albatross” that will bring down the Democrats on Election Day. That he made this earth-shaking discovery less than two weeks before the actual election was an utterly amazing coincidence, and it was a remarkably convenient development for Rove, since he’d previously argued that Obamacare’s unpopularity by itself would not be enough to carry Republicans to victory.

As I wrote at the time, what Rove was doing was fairly obvious: He was planting the seeds of a post-election anti-Obamacare messaging push. If the GOP looks to be in control of both houses of Congress when the dust settles on Nov. 5, hacks like Rove will get themselves on TV and argue that the American people kicked the Democrats out of power because of the Affordable Care Act, and the new Congress will have a clear “mandate” to repeal the law.

Rove’s not the only one working to foster this perception of sudden and overwhelming anti-ACA sentiment. Bloomberg Politics analyzed the ad spending data for Senate races across the country and found that expenditures on anti-ACA political ads spiked dramatically in the second week of October. “Between Oct. 7 and 13, there were 11,782 anti-Obamacare ads on TV in Senate races across the country,” Bloomberg found, “with the biggest concentrations in four of the nation's hottest campaigns: Kentucky, Iowa, Louisiana and Colorado.” This, too, was a predictable development. The message that conservatives and Republicans want to send is that America was motivated to get out and vote because they hate Obamacare so much.

Ads are one thing, but the candidates themselves are busily campaigning on a host of other issues. Up in New Hampshire, Scott Brown is talking about Ebola and energy prices and also Ebola and did I mention Ebola? In North Carolina, Thom Tillis is talking about the Islamic State and the stimulus (and also Ebola). In Iowa they’re arguing over chickens and who skipped which editorial board meeting. Sure, the Affordable Care Act still comes up as a reliable attack line, but in no way is it driving Republican campaigns in the way everyone assumed it would earlier this year. Indeed, when these candidates do bring up the ACA, they tend to make trouble for themselves by calling for repeal but also endorsing the law’s more popular and effective features. And as Brian Beutler points out at the New Republic, the dissembling among Republican candidates and the trend among the states toward Obamacare implementation are pretty strong signs that the Affordable Care Act’s post-November future is secure.

There’s a good reason for why Obamacare isn’t front-and-center as we come to the end of the election cycle: People just don’t care about it that much anymore. The latest and last pre-election healthcare tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 8 percent of registered voters named the Affordable Care Act as the most important issue for them when deciding on whom to vote for. Over half of all voters are sick of hearing about the ACA and want candidates to talk about other issues. And while the ACA continues to be unpopular, the vast majority want Congress to make fixes to the law instead of repealing it.

Numbers like these aren’t a new development – they’re largely the same now as they were during the summer, when spending on anti-Obamacare advertisements plummeted as Republicans realized that they just weren’t having an impact anymore. By this point, there aren’t many people who don’t have a firm opinion of the ACA. The four-year onslaught of advertisements didn’t shift public opinion in any significant way, so there’s no reason to think that the people funding the last-minute crush of advertisements have any reasonable expectation of actually moving the needle.

No, this 11th-hour flood of advertising is all about creating the perception that, despite all indications to the contrary, the 2014 midterms came down to Obamacare. The intended audience for this bit of subterfuge is the media, and operatives like Rove are banking on the capacity (or the willingness) of reporters to be spun. An anti-Obamacare “mandate” will exist only if pundits and journalists who should know better allow themselves to be duped.

By Simon Maloy

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