RALEIGH — In the wake of last week's historic passage of major health care reform legislation, the political focus is on the implications for this fall's congressional elections. Many have speculated that while the Democrats may have achieved a major policy victory, they now run the risk of being severely punished at the polls come November by voters angry over reform.
In the Triangle, many have suggested that Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge took a large political risk by supporting reform. Three other North Carolina Democrats (U.S. Reps. Health Shuler, Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell) actually voted against the legislation, presumably because of re-election worries about their Republican-leaning districts.
Political science research on midterm elections suggests, however, that although Democrats will almost surely lose a substantial number of seats in the House of Representatives come November, the vote on health care will have little, if anything, to do with that.
Historically, party success in congressional elections follows a regular pattern of "surge and decline." When one party wins a presidential election, it is generally because of the "surge"; the party was more successful in motivating voters who might have otherwise stayed home. Thus, the party of the winning president is able to pick up seats it might not otherwise have won. Two years later, without the presidential standard-bearer at the top of the ticket, we see the "decline"; the party's voters tend to stay home in disproportionate numbers and the party loses many of the seats it was lucky to gain in the first place.
In 2010, Democrats are doubly vulnerable, as they picked up a significant number of normally Republican-leaning seats in both 2006 and 2008. Only once in the 20th century did one party gain House seats three elections in a row. Currently there are over 50 House seats held by Democrats in districts that lean Republican and fewer than 10 seats held by Republicans in districts that lean Democratic. Obviously, this fact alone makes it much easier for Republicans to pick up seats.
In addition, we also know that the party that controls Congress almost always suffers losses in a bad economy. Thus, even if health care had never been discussed during the past year, we would still expect Republicans to pick up a substantial number of seats. In such a heavily tilted political environment, Republicans are able to recruit and run their strongest, most qualified challengers while Democrats struggle to field their best candidates (North Carolina's U.S. Senate race being a case in point).
An understanding of the way the news media cover both legislation and elections likewise suggests that health care, in particular, should not do substantial damage to Democratic candidates. Had Democrats failed to pass health reform despite their efforts, their prospects would have looked much worse. Pollsters from both sides of the political aisle concluded in 1994 that Democrats' electoral disaster stemmed not from trying to pass health care reform, but from trying and failing.
Failure, not surprisingly, brings with it extensive negative coverage. Success, in contrast, dramatically changes the dynamics of how the issue is portrayed in newspapers and on news broadcasts.
We've surely all heard too much of the "making legislation is like making sausage" metaphor, but it now proves especially apt, as people really enjoy consuming sausage even if they don't like to see how it's made. Despite key health care reforms not kicking until 2014, the Democrats wisely frontloaded the legislation with benefits such as fixing the Medicare "donut hole," extending coverage for young adults and ending (or at least intending to end) pre-existing-condition exclusions for children. Thus media coverage will no longer be about the unsavory process, but the more amenable end-result.
When all is said and done on Nov. 2, however many seats Democrats lose - and they will lose many - it would've been far worse for them had they failed to pass health care, not better.
Steven Greene is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at N.C. State University.