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No Perfect Political Weapon

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Anyone who knows me well knows I am usually eyeing the oven for the next fresh batch of in-depth public-opinion data from Democracy Corps, a partnership between legendary Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville that just celebrated its 15th anniversary. It gets even better when the two team up with Resurgent Republic, cofounded by veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, as they did to craft a national survey of 840 likely 2014 voters (including 50 percent reached on cellular phones) conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. The survey was conducted March 19-23 for NPR, and it probed voters' attitudes on the Affordable Care Act, the state of the economy, and their choices in November.

Not surprisingly, Democracy Corps and Resurgent Republic touted the poll's release with broadly divergent memos: The Democrats' headline read, "Be Careful Accepting Conventional Wisdom on the Affordable Care Act and 2014 Being a Republican Year," while Republicans saw "Early Signs of Another Republican Midterm Wave." There is some glass-half-full/glass-half-empty mentality inherent in such a collaborative effort. But in my experience, given the track record of the research organizations involved, this is very high-quality stuff, and you can pretty much take the numbers themselves to the bank.

Some of the survey's most intriguing findings were message tests on the Affordable Care Act and the economy, with one set of messages written by the Democrats and one set written by the Republicans. The findings should give both sides pause: Just as the Affordable Care Act may not be the universally deadly weapon most Republicans seem to think it is, focusing on the economy and a minimum-wage hike may not be the salvation many Democrats seem to think it could be.

On the ACA, the survey gave voters a choice between two statements, one from a Democratic candidate and one from a Republican. The Democrat's statement read: "The health care law is a start, but it's not perfect. We need to make it work for small businesses and get costs down…. Repealing it with more political fighting will hurt a lot of people." The Republican's said: "Obamacare is hurting more people than it's helping…. It's time to pass health care reform that lowers costs and allows the people—not the federal government or insurance companies—to control their own health care."

The results of the survey showed that likely voters preferred the Democratic message 49 percent to 44 percent. On the basic question "Do you support or oppose the health care reform law that passed in 2010, also known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare?" 51 percent said they opposed it and just 47 percent said they supported it. But, as Carville and Greenberg point out, on the follow-up question to opponents which read, "Would you say you oppose the health care reform law because it goes too far … or because it doesn't go far enough?" 7 percent picked "doesn't go far enough," theoretically bringing die-hard opposition to the ACA down to 44 percent.

On the economy, voters chose between a Democratic statement: "The economy is recovering, but not for regular hardworking people…. We must raise the minimum wage … and stop unfair trade agreements that wipe out American jobs"; and a Republican statement: "The Obama administration has had six years to get this economy going and their policies haven't worked…. It's time to produce more energy here at home, and educate people for the jobs of the 21st century." Another interesting result: By 48 percent to 46 percent, voters chose the GOP's message.

On the surface, nothing about the top lines would suggest that Democrats are headed for a bath in November. On the question, "If the election for U.S. Congress were held today, would you be voting for the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate?" the ballot was virtually tied, with Democrats at 44 percent and Republicans at 43 percent.

The real problems for Democrats lie below the top lines. In fact, they are threefold.

First, as even Greenberg and Carville acknowledged, Republicans were 7 percentage points more likely than Democrats to say they are certain to vote this November. Second, while Democrats' national standing in this poll is middling at best, the most competitive Senate and House elections this fall will be taking place on much less favorable terrain, thanks to both GOP redistricting in the House and Senate Democrats' extraordinary exposure after their wild success six years ago. In these red states and districts, the makeup of the electorate is a far cry from this survey's 37 percent Dem/31 percent GOP voter breakdown.

Third, Democrats are a wreck with independents, who make up a third of all survey respondents and an even greater share in competitive states and districts. Independents disapproved of Obama's job performance by 61 percent to 35 percent (compared with 51 percent/46 percent overall), chose the GOP's message on health care by 50 percent to 43 percent, and backed the GOP's economic message by a whopping 57 percent to 35 percent. Amazingly, they even disapproved of Democrats' job performance as the majority party in the Senate (76 percent disapprove/18 percent approve) more than they disapproved of Republicans' performance in the House (72 percent disapprove, 23 percent approve).

The only silver lining for Democrats among independents at this point is that their skepticism hasn't yet hardened into a firm choice for November. On the congressional-ballot question, Democratic voters supported the Democratic candidate by 93 percent to 4 percent; Republicans supported the GOP candidate by 89 percent to 4 percent. Independents broke for Republicans by a 16-point margin, 45 percent to 29 percent, but those numbers also mean that more than a quarter haven't yet made up their minds.

Does the potential for a GOP wave exist? Survey says: Yes. But is there ample time for Republican candidates to screw up their standing with a large pool of undecided independents? Of course there is.

The Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman contributed to this article.

This article appears in the April 12, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Message Testing.

(Image via Ken Durden / Shutterstock.com)

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