Did Obamacare win the election?

Buried in Mitt Romney’s post-election analysis of why he lost – he blames it on “gifts” to minorities, young people and single women – is an interesting admission about the impact of Obama’s health-care reform on the election.

“Obamacare” didn’t come up a whole lot in the election, because Obama didn’t want to talk a lot about it (polls show it is still unpopular overall) and Romney, while pledging to repeal it, was not in a position to make it a centrepiece of his campaign (having famously passed the same plan in Massachusetts, every explanation of why he wanted to repeal it had to be prefaced by an explanation of why state laws are different from federal ones). But the health-care reform was a big factor in the Democratic mid-term disaster of 2010, and though it became less of an albatross for the party once it squeaked by the Supreme Court, it was still expected to be more of a liability than an asset for Democrats this year.

But according to Romney, Obamacare worked to mobilize voters. He thinks this is a bad thing, a case of the government doling out favours to special interest groups; but liberals and Democrats might feel that Romney is making a stronger case for the effectiveness of Obamacare than Obama ever did:

“Free contraceptives were very big with young, college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people. They turned out in large numbers, a larger share in this election even than in 2008.”

The president’s health care plan, he said, was also a useful tool in mobilizing black and Hispanic voters. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote with 59 percent, according to exit polls, minorities coalesced around the president in overwhelming numbers: 93 percent of blacks and 71 percent of Hispanics.

“You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity — I mean, this is huge,” Mr. Romney said. “Likewise with Hispanic voters, free health care was a big plus.”

A lot of liberals are already making fun of Romney, or expressing horror at this point of view: that when people feel the government is making their lives better, it’s some kind of “gift” or bribe, rather than the government doing its job. That’s part of the worldview that Romney expressed in the 47% remarks, and which underlay a lot of the philosophical differences in the campaign. But what’s really odd is to hear the Republican candidate tell people that Obamacare was an asset for the Democrats, after telling us for years that it was going to be their Waterloo.

How could Obamacare be such a liability for the Democrats in 2010, and then, according to their own opponent, a major asset in 2012? This speaks to the big problem the Democrats still have to deal with: while they’ve built a workable majority of voters in the past two Presidential elections, many of their voters are not likely to show up during mid-term elections, which have much lower turnout, and a much older electorate. The Democrats did extremely well in the 2006 election because older voters were frustrated with the Iraq war and took their frustration out on the Republicans. But in 2010, the Democrats were in charge, and the natural disadvantage of the party in power was compounded by the Medicare cuts that Obama’s health-care reform incorporated. The older electorate of 2010 voted against the Democrats because they saw Obamacare as hurting rather than helping them. But in 2012, more people were voting who had trouble affording medical insurance, and they broke for Obamacare, not against it.

The challenge for the Democrats in 2014, when they will once again be the party in power, will be to find a way to minimize their expected losses by figuring out a way to get their base to show up for mid-term elections in greater numbers. If they can ever do that, Republicans will be in real trouble for a while. (On the other hand, if the Democrats find some way to make young voters feel betrayed – like for example cutting the benefits they can expect to receive if and when they retire – then their voting coalition could evaporate.) Meanwhile, Republicans’ challenge in 2014 will be to find a way to avoid blowing their third consecutive chance to take back the Senate, meaning that we can expect them to apply a lot of pressure to keep people like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock out of future Senate races. Whether any of this works, I don’t know; this is one thing that not even the polls can predict – yet.