After the House narrowly approved legislation repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, House Democrats loudly proclaimed that dozens of Republican lawmakers will lose their seats in the 2018 elections as a result. While I, personally, hope the Senate completely rewrites the bill (or fails to pass anything at all), claims of the House GOP’s impending doom may be exaggerated.
In my experience in politics and government (as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign manager, as deputy governor of Illinois and as Chuck Schumer’s communications director), voters rarely make decisions based on one policy issue—especially in swing districts. Because both parties insist on gerrymandering districts (meaning they draw them so only a Democrat or Republican could possibly win), most races are really decided in the primary. In most safe Democratic districts, the Republican challenger is irrelevant. In most safe Republican districts, not voting for the ACA repeal would be a problem.
According to the Cook Political Report, there are all of 10 toss-up races next year. Even if you add in the leaning GOP (37 seats) or leaning Democratic (18 seats), it’s still only another 55—out of 435 total—and most of those races (if not all) will not hinge on a health care vote. It’d be easier to take the Democrats’ political analysis more seriously if they hadn’t blown control of the White House, the Senate, the House, most Governorships and most state legislatures.
Here’s what most voters are likely to take into account next year:
- Are they safe? In times of peace and stability, foreign affairs never cross most voters minds. But if we’re enmeshed in an unpopular ground war or are facing a serious nuclear threat from North Korea, voters will pick the party they think will keep them safe (usually Republicans, but not necessarily in this case).
- Are they worried about their job? If the economy is strong and people feel secure, they typically don’t rock the boat. If they’re anxious (as we saw last year), they vote for change.
- What do they think of the president? Midterm elections typically go against the party occupying the White House. Because most presidents can’t deliver the change and progress they promised during the election, voters take it out on incumbents in Congress. Trump’s low approval ratings will be a factor here.
- Do they like the incumbent? While most people can’t tell you who their member of Congress is, if you’re going to bother to vote in midterm elections, you probably know more than the average person. That means you likely have some view of the incumbent and that view will shape your decision more than any specific vote that candidate took.
- After all of that, particular issues like health care come into play. Because of gerrymandering, most low income voters (those most hurt by the new legislation, if enacted) live in safe Democratic districts (or live in poor, rural districts that vote Republican no matter what), not swing districts. Arguably, Democrats could identify people in each swing district who lose their health care and turn them out, but their electoral performance of late raises major doubts that they have the ability to pull it off.
Is the ACA repeal bad public policy? Yes. We should want more people to have health care, not less. Is the Senate likely to pass anything resembling the House version? No. But either way, the notion that control of Congress will now flip because of the health care vote is extremely specious.
If Democrats want to win over voters, instead of focusing (especially publicly) on the impact of public policy on their electoral prospects, they should focus on helping people in tangible ways that recognize voter needs and fears. Right now, if you ask most voters, Democratic politicians mainly parrot the views of their donors and activists. Voters want politicians who understand their concerns and act on them—not a handful of special interests like Moveon.org, labor and Rachel Maddow. Democrats are only going to win when they finally realize that.
Bradley Tusk is the founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings, the parent company of Tusk Strategies, Tusk Ventures, Kronos Archives, the Ivory Gaming Group and Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies. In 2009 he served as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign manager, guiding Mayor Bloomberg to a third term.