Just now, at the White House press conference, a journalist asked President Obama about the one in two voters who say they favor repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Obama noted that one in two don't want repeal, which is true. But Obama actually understated the case. The proportion that oppose repeal is actually larger than one in two. A lot larger.
For the last few weeks, polls have consistently shown that between 40 and 50 percent of Americans answer "yes" when pollsters ask about repeal. But the numbers change when the pollsters ask follow-up questions.
The individual features of reform, like prohibitions on denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions or helping seniors pay for prescription drugs, remain wildly popular. When you tell people that repeal would mean giving up these features, as it necessarily would, support for repeal falls. In a recent CBS/New York Times poll, the proportion of respondents favoring repeal fell from 41 to 25 percent.
Forty-one percent is lower than the percentage who said they favored repeal in last night's exit polls. But, again, that's a telling fact. Last night's sample included a disproportionate number of senior citizens, who have always eyed Obama more warily and whose opposition to reform likely reflects not a principled opposition to government health care but a reaction to news that the Affordable Care Act takes $400 billion out of Medicare. (I'll have more to say about that contradiction later on.) Younger people are far more likely to support the Affordable Care Act. And their votes will count more, relatively speaking, in the next election.
One final note: The last few months have seen an expensive, ludicrously deceptive campaign by conservatives and business groups to discredit the Affordable Care Act, as Greg Sargent has done such a heroic job of chronicling. I don't expect that campaign will stop now. But if a serious debate over repeal begins, the groups that favor health care reform will push back a lot harder. The White House and the Democratic Party will too. That's no guarantee defenders of reform will succeed. But it has to improve their odds.
Update: Austin Frakt and Steve Pizer point out another big obstacle the Republicans will face. On the whole, interest groups from the health care industry support the law. They want favorable regulations, but they want to leave the law in place. This is both a blessing and curse: Their support, provided in exchange for concessions in the original law, is one reason the law doesn't control costs or expand coverage more aggressively. But Republicans, more so than Democrats, care about what these interest groups think. "We doubt the House leadership will do anything to alienate the insurers, drug companies, or hospitals," Frakt and Pizer write.
By the way, if you care about health care, Frakt's "Incidental Economist" should be one of your bookmarks. I have a list of five recent items that are worth discussing. One of these days, I'll get around to them.