Health law's poor polling: GOP controls debate, Dems question 2012 impact

Defenders of the Democrats' health law quickly dismissed Friday's dismal poll numbers as a statistical fluke that will have little impact to no impact on the 2012 election.

The monthly poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation registered the lowest level of support for the law since it was enacted in March 2010, with 51 percent of respondents having an unfavorable view versus 34 percent in favor. The main reason: waning support from Democrats. Just 52 percent of Democrats now have a favorable view of the law, Kaiser found.

The poll numbers are to be expected, said Ron Pollack, founding executive director of the pro-reform Families USA.

"I'm obviously not happy about this development, but I wouldn't take too much from these poll numbers," Pollack said. "They shouldn't surprise anyone for at least one clear reason: Public discourse is mainly coming from the GOP primary" which has been "uniformly negative" about the law.

That will change next year after Republicans choose a candidate and Democrats go on the offense as the Supreme Court considers the law's constitutionality.

"I think as we move closer to a more balanced exposure of more balanced points of view, we're going to see a reversal," Pollack said.

Congressional Republicans embraced the poll as proof their strategy is working.

Unrelenting attacks against the law helped the GOP win control of the House in the 2010 elections, and they think it will pay dividends in 2012 as well. Repealing the law was the first major action taken by the new House majority in January, although the bill died in the Senate. Since then Republicans have kept up the criticism with more than a dozen partisan hearings.

"It's not surprising that the more people learn about the health care law, the more the opposition grows," Energy and Commerce health subcommittee chairman Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) told The Hill via e-mail. "The law was sold with budget gimmicks and empty promises that it would create jobs, lower premiums, and the government wouldn't touch your plan if you liked it. Instead, the law's regulations have forced businesses continue to lay off employees, increase premiums, and countless individuals will either lose their current plans or be pushed in the public exchanges."

Ethan Rome, executive director of the liberal Health Care for America Now, said Republicans are wrong to believe the public's souring mood will help them come 2012.

He said the backlash against the law is fueled by the same populist anger that's behind the Occupy Wall Street movement. One year after the law's passage, Rome said, Republicans are still doing all they can to block its implementation, insurance companies are still jacking up premiums, and the public's patience is wearing thin.

"I think there's a lot of confusion and as a result a lot of skepticism," Rome said. "There's a larger frustration with what's going on in the country. Why is it so hard to get health reform implemented? It's the law."

Neither Rome nor Pollack faulted President Obama for allowing the Republicans to control the terms of the debate over his main domestic achievement these past few weeks.

"The president has an obvious dilemma," Pollack said. "The public wants him to address jobs and the economy. There are more things that the president can do [to defend the health law] but it makes sense for him to choose the direction he has."

The White House said it's moving full steam ahead to make the law work for people, regardless of short-term polling numbers.

"Thanks to health reform, one million more young adults have health insurance, 18 million seniors have received free preventive services like mammograms and insurance companies can't put a lifetime limit on your care or drop your coverage when you get sick," said an administration official. "We're going to stay focused on what really matters: implementing the law and delivering the benefits of reform to the American people."

Regardless of who gets the nomination, the health law is certain to play an outsize role in the 2012 election.

Every Republican candidate has vowed to repeal it, even Mitt Romney - despite the fact that the federal law was largely modeled after his own effort in Massachusetts in 2006. The Kaiser poll suggests that Romney's opponents have so far failed to convincingly make that point, with 69 percent of likely GOP primary voters saying they don't know enough about the Massachusetts law to say whether it's similar to the federal law. 

Pollack said Romney, should he win the nomination, will have no choice but to continue his attack against the federal law.

"He's not going to want to have disenchanted people in the party that he needs to get out the vote," Pollack said.