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Will Democrats Change Their Health Law Message After Florida Loss?

Democrats may have lost the battle in a Florida special election, which Republican Rep. David Jolly (right) won and in which the Affordable Care Act figured prominently. But they don't think they have lost the health-law messaging war.
J. Scott Applewhite
Democrats may have lost the battle in a Florida special election, which Republican Rep. David Jolly (right) won and in which the Affordable Care Act figured prominently. But they don't think they have lost the health-law messaging war.

Congressional Democrats' messaging on the Affordable Care Act obviously didn't work as they had hoped in the Florida special election for a vacant House seat, since Republican David Jolly won the Tuesday vote.

But does that mean Democrats should abandon the "fix it, don't nix" it message delivered by Democrat Alex Sink, who narrowly lost a race that Republicans sought to nationalize and turn into a referendum on the health law?

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., certainly isn't saying so.

"I think that our candidate Alex Sink — she's so excellent, so superb — and she said it just right. There are many good things about the Affordable Care Act that are good for the health and well-being of the American people," Pelosi told journalists Thursday. "There are some things that need to be fixed. Let's do that. And that is the message of our members."

There's new polling evidence to suggest that Pelosi isn't just being blindly optimistic. A Bloomberg News poll indicates that 64 percent of Americans support the law as is, or favor minor changes.

The problem for Democrats is that's a national poll. The numbers would likely look far different in the Republican-leaning districts that Democrats would need to pick up to have any chance to win back the House in November — something which seems nearly impossible at this stage.

The same holds true for the four vulnerable Democratic senators who represent red states Obama lost; antipathy to the law overall runs higher in those states.

Indeed, the poll found 72 percent of Republicans favoring repeal of the law. That kind of number has Republicans confident that they can only benefit as Democrats rally around the health law.

"It's clear that she's in denial," Andrea Bozek, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says of Pelosi. "Look, Alex Sink followed Nancy Pelosi and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's] playbook and she couldn't escape the weight of Obamacare in an Obama district. So my question for Democrats is, how are they going to win the Mitt Romney districts? What's their playbook going forward because clearly what they did in the special didn't work."

While Obama won the district twice, Florida's 13th congressional district is barely an "Obama district." The president won it narrowly in 2008 (4.2 percent) and 2012 (1.5 percent). Legislative redistricting after the 2010 census made the district more favorable to Republicans. It has higher percentages of white voters and those age 65-years-plus than the typical district the president won.

Bozek said the Republican playbook is to continue the overwhelming anti-Obamacare messaging, using incumbent Democrats' votes for the health law against them — as well as pledges like the one Obama made suggesting people could keep their health insurance if they chose to do so. That was something they couldn't do with Sink, a non-incumbent. Also, people who Republicans say were harmed by the law will appear often in Republican ads, Bozek said.

The Bloomberg poll does seem to offer some hope for congressional Democrats. Large majorities of Republicans actually want to keep some of the law's most popular features, to the poll indicates.

Sixty two percent of Republicans like that insurance companies are banned from discriminating against those with preexisting conditions, while 57 percent of Republicans like that the law extends insurance coverage to adult children until age 26. So campaign messaging that plays up the parts of the law that with bipartisan popularity could neutralize Republican attacks.

That's what Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said in a memo made the Florida special election so close. Jolly beat Sink by about two percentage points in a district where Republicans had an 11-percentage-points advantage in likely voters over Democrats.

When Garin tested Sink's pro-ACA message against Jolly's, the Democrat did better than the Republican by seven percentage points. It's something for Democrats to hold onto — and they will.

Doug Hattaway, who heads a communications firm and was spokesman for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, said by email:

"... Supporters of ACA need to talk about one thing and one thing only: The actual benefits that people receive under the law.

"Surveys show that when ACA supporters talk about the benefits, such as guaranteed coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, support for reform rises to 60-70 percent, or more. When talked about in the abstract, the law gets maybe 30-40 percent," he said.

Fix-it, don't-nix-it, or a variation "is too abstract, unless that phrase is in the context of specific benefits. People need to understand that repealing ACA will take away guaranteed benefits that they now have," Hattaway said.

As they remind voters of the parts of the health law they like, Democrats will also remind them of Republican attacks on the law.

"Republicans' obsessive repeal attempts, more than 50 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, will come back to haunt them in November because they would go back to the days when people could be denied care for having preexisting conditions and and women could be charged more than men," says Emily Bittner, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She adds the same reminder many Democrats are making: that special elections aren't generally predictive of what will happen during mid-terms.

(This post was updated after it originally posted with Hattaway's comments.)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.