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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The SCOTUS Ruling Thursday and Public Opinion

Key implications of Thursday’s Supreme Court healthcare ruling from a public opinion perspective.

First of all, most Americans will not understand all of the complex legal verbiage in the opinion. The public will mainly hear or see the simple message that the Affordable Care Act has been upheld. Many news reports also remind readers/viewers that this is a victory for President Obama (see this New York Times story for a good example).

Reactions to the ruling will of course depend on one’s beginning position. One of our most important conclusions from our recent editors' review of public opinion data on the ACA was this: “Views of the Healthcare Law Highly Polarized by Party.” As noted in our review, 71% of Democrats say it was a good thing that the law passed, while 81% of Republicans said it was a bad thing. The law is highly identified with Obama and the Democrats, while Republicans (and Mitt Romney) have been highly critical. Hence, our first assumption is that Democrats across the country will hail the ruling, while Republicans will either criticize the ruling or, more probably, just go back to their more general criticism of the law itself.

More broadly, when everything is put together, Americans in the most recent polls I’ve seen have been more opposed to the law than in favor. Here are four examples: in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll June 20-24, 35% say “Obama’s healthcare plan that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president in 2010” was a good thing, while 41% say it was a bad thing; in an ABC News/Washington Post poll June 20-24, 36% have a favorable view of “the federal law making changes in the healthcare system,” while 52% have an unfavorable view; an AP-GfK poll June 14-18, found that 33% support “the healthcare reforms that were passed by Congress in March of 2010,” while 47% oppose; and a Pew Research poll June 7-17 in which 43% said they approved of “the healthcare legislation passed by Barack Obama and Congress in 2010,” while 48% disapproved.

Two of these organizations ventured to ask Americans ahead of time how they would react to various possible rulings by the Supreme Court. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 35% of Americans said they would be disappointed if the Supreme Court ruled that the healthcare law was constitutional, while 28% said they would be pleased. The Pew Research poll found that 51% said they would be unhappy if the court decided to uphold the entire law, while 39% said they would be happy.

So we have here the "pre" ruling estimate that on a net-net basis, Americans are more disappointed and unhappy than pleased and happy with the ruling.

The most significant finding on the part of the Supreme Court was the ruling on the individual mandate. This is also the part of the ACA to which the American public reacts most negatively.

More than seven in 10 Americans said a few months ago that they felt the mandate was unconstitutional. The majority of the Supreme Court obviously did not follow public opinion on this part of its ruling.

It is possible, however, that the upholding of the mandate by the Supreme Court (under a tax provision) may serve the function of legitimizing the mandate -- and the law -- in some Americans’ minds and could change their opinions about it. 

In general, I think it’s certainly reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court ruling will help Obama’s positioning in the minds of Americans, at least temporarily.

The fact that the Court did not invalidate his key legislative achievement may make Obama seem to be smarter or more of a shrewd leader -- certainly a much better outcome for the president than if the court had held the ACA or parts of the ACA unconstitutional.

The potential downside for Obama: the ruling essentially makes the healthcare act "real." Opponents now realize that the only way to change it is to have the legislative ability to do so, which may energize the right to do more to defeat Obama and Democrats in the election.

Also, despite the potential positioning gains from the SCOTUS ruling, Obama will have to continue to work hard to do a better job of selling the virtues of the ACA to the average American -- given the data reviewed above which shows Americans are more negative than positive about it.

Romney hasn't spent a lot of time addressing the constitutionality of the ACA, but rather has focused on his political objections to it. Thus, Romney presumably has the same political target to go after now that he has had all along. Both Romney and Obama have Harvard law degrees, of course, so it will be interesting to watch their debates on this topic next October.

Gallup and USA Today are asking about the ruling Thursday night, and by Friday, the resulting data will provide a good feel for actual, rather than postulated, initial reaction. The long-lasting impact of the law will not be known for a longer period of time. Both sides of the debate are now in heavy-duty spin mode, attempting to shape public opinion at this critical juncture. The political impact of the ruling on Obama and on Romney in the presidential race also probably will take a while to determine. At the moment, Obama is leading Romney by a 47% to 44% margin in our daily tracking. It takes a while for shifts in presidential preference to percolate through our seven-day rolling averages, but we will keep readers posted if we see any significant movement in either Obama's job approval or the trial heat ballot in one direction or the other.

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