Opinion: Individual Mandate Might Sink Obama in Swing States

While the big boys in the media have never seem to mention it much, the President campaigned against the individual mandate in 2008. It was a smart stance to take: the American people are not comfortable being forced to buy health insurance, and polling shows more than a super-majority believe it is unconstitutional.

The overall perspective on the bill is understandably mixed. The public disapproves of the individual mandate and taking money from Medicare, but supports other sections of the legislation. The latest numbers from Politico illustrate this nicely:

Gallup found that 47 percent of Americans want a GOP president to repeal the law, while 44 percent oppose that.

However, 72 percent of Americans believe the individual mandate in the health care reform package is unconstitutional, while 20 percent believe it is constitutional.

Along party lines, a majority of Democrats—56 percent—believe the health care mandate is unconstitutional and 37 percent defend it as constitutional. Among Republicans, 94 percent view that part of the law as unconstitutional.

I'm still disappointed that I've yet to see a poll asking people about their level of support for the bill if the individual mandate and the money-from-Medicare parts were cut out. I suspect it would be much more popular—high 50's or low 60's maybe—and had they passed a bill like that, I bet 2010 would not have been such a horrible year for Democrats.

This sort of educated guess can be made when you see the bit of polling done on other reforms in the legislation: the oft-mentioned allowing of young people to stay on their parents' insurance longer; insurance companies not being able to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

Other recent polling, this time from Gallup / USA Today, paints an even more worrisome picture for the Obama camp. Opposition to the health care bill overall is a bit higher than the national average in swing states, and while it seems the majority of polls show Obama beating Romney and Santorum nationally, he's not doing nearly as well in the battleground states that will determine the election.

In the poll, Obama lags the two leading Republican rivals in the 12 states likely to determine the outcome of a close race in November:

  • Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum tops Obama 50%-45% in the swing states. Nationwide, Santorum's lead narrows to 49%-46%.
  • Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney edges Obama 48%-46% in the swing states. Nationwide, they are tied at 47% each.

It's worth noting that we can't see the cross-tabs, and how these numbers break down in the individual states is much more important than the overall number.

Don't ask me what's going on there with Santorum. I don't understand it, and if I had to bet I'd say he's like so many other candidates that will take a big hit when independents get a closer look at him. On the other hand, the electorate is well acquainted with Romney, and even though he's been taking a beating from the other primary candidates, he's still doing well against Obama where it counts. Who knows what sort of effect those SuperPAC attacks will have against Obama when they stop focusing on the internal GOP fight, and all turn on the President.

Pulling back a bit, the real moral of this story is how useless some polls are. National approval ratings make for good and cheap headlines, but it's the polling in the swing states that we should be focusing on if we want to be looking at what actually matters. If it ends up being Romney, anyone who says one side or the other will win for sure is fooling themselves. There are just too many variables that could very easily have an effect of a few points one way or the other; that makes any sort of prediction at this stage no more meaningful than that of sports fans before the start of the regular season predicting that, "This year...This is the year our team goes all the way!"

Among those variables is what might happen if the Supreme Court rules for, or against, the individual mandate. Or what if the Supreme Court declared the entire law unconstitutional, as one of the judges in a lower court did last year? Will that billionaire who gave $10 million to Gingrich double down and really give $100 million to a SuperPAC in support of the GOP nominee? Will liberal donors catch the bug, following Bill Maher's goading? Will the Americans Elect candidate be a left or right leaner, and will that catch fire?

Regardless, when major developments happen, and news organizations trot out the national polling data, ignore it. Head over to your favorite polling aggregation site and look for the latest data from the swing states. In this respect, the national polls are sort of like popularity polls for college football teams, while the only polls that actually matter in the end are those that are counted in the Bowl Championship Series ratings.