The War of Obamacare Anecdotes in the 2014 Elections

Posted April 14, 2014 at 5:00am

A couple months ago on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal , I said that I thought the 2014 elections would be driven by anecdotes related to the Affordable Care Act. I think a pair of ads in two of the most competitive Senate races in the country could be a pretty accurate roadmap for the debate that is coming over the next six months.  

Last week in Alaska, an outside group called Put Alaska First went on the air with a new, 30-second television ad, “Beat,” featuring cancer survivor Lisa Keller talking about her struggle to gain insurance coverage and thanking  Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, for his fight against the insurance companies.  

“I was born and raised in Alaska. I’m a mother, a runner, and a breast cancer survivor. I was lucky. I beat cancer. But the insurance companies still denied me health insurance just because of a pre-existing condition. I now have health insurance again because of Mark Begich. Because he fought the insurance companies so that we no longer have to.”

The ad is interesting for at least a couple different reasons. It’s one of the first times that a Democratic ad this cycle has tried to frame the Affordable Care Act on its merits instead of critiquing the legislation. It’s also noteworthy that the ad mentions neither Obamacare nor the Affordable Care Act.  

But the ACA has given Republicans something that they have generally failed at compared to Democrats — anecdotes to fight a policy war.  

Last month in Michigan, the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity went on the air with a 60-second television ad, “Shannon’s Story,” featuring a wife and mother of five children talking about her family’s struggle with “Obamacare.”

“I’m Shannon Wendt. I’m from Grand Rapids, Michigan. We have five kids from 10 years old all the way down to three. We have worked so hard to become middle class. We budget- we’re not wealthy. We, you know, live within our means. To our family, Obamacare has meant nothing but headache and struggle. Our health insurance plan was canceled because of Obamacare. I was shocked. I thought, this has to be wrong. This new plan is not affordable at all. My husband is working a lot more hours just to pay for these new increases. I’m frustrated that government has caused this huge problem for our family. It feels like a kick in the gut. Congressman Peters joined up with President Obama saying, ‘If you like your plan, you can keep it. If you like your doctors, you can keep them.’ Those are lies. Congressman Peters vote for Obamacare is a vote that’s destroying the middle class. Congressman Peters, the Affordable Care Act is not affordable.”

This type of ad has and will be litigated by fact-check organizations and partisans on both sides, but it’s likely that more people will see only the ad rather than the subsequent media analysis and discussion.  

If you needed anymore evidence that this Game of Anecdotes is coming, the Republican National Committee has been collecting Obamacare stories since early March. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched way back in January to feature stories of people who say their lives would be negatively affected if Republicans had their way.  

So how much of a difference will these anecdotal ads make, particularly in the same race?  

That might be one of the biggest unanswered questions of the entire election cycle. But I think an educated guess is: not much.  

Public opinion about the Affordable Care Act has been remarkably consistent over nearly five years, with more people viewing it unfavorably than favorably. The approval gap narrowed to about six percentage points in the few months before and after the 2012 presidential election. But that gap has now widened to a double-digit margin.  

According to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average , 40 percent favor the ACA compared to 52 percent who oppose it.  

But remember that these are national polls, and the fight for the Senate and the House is being played out in more conservative states and districts than the nation as a whole — places where President Barack Obama and the ACA are more unpopular.  

It remains to be seen whether the passage of time and these positive Democratic ads will buoy ACA’s popularity enough to make a difference. It’s certainly possible, but it will be more difficult considering Republicans are going to come armed with anecdotes of their own.