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The Canary in the Coal Mine (Updated)
Will Congress heed the warning on their Obamacare exemptions?
The Canary in the Coal Mine (Updated)

The poll data is clear and cuts across party lines: 92 percent of the public does not think it is right that Congress and their staff are letting the Obama administration exempt them from the costs of Obamacare. Yet it seems many in Congress still want to dismiss these findings in hopes that these sentiments won't translate into actual voter preferences.

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Incumbents facing reelections shouldn't fool themselves. A recent real-world deployment of the issue shows it can powerfully impact candidates’ prospects. 

We tested the effect of the congressional exemption issue in six different 2014 races, which represent different election archetypes. We launched incumbent-specific, small but targeted, week-long communications campaigns, using mail, phones and internet, (but no TV or radio), directed at 7,500 likely voters. Then we analyzed the criteria regularly used by campaign strategists to measure the strength of an incumbent’s reelection campaign: the "hard re-elect", or the percentage of voters who say they will vote to reelect the incumbent; the "hard vote against", or the percentage of voters who say they will vote against an incumbent; and the "ballot test", or how the incumbent fares when matched up against his challenger.

The incumbents against whom we tested the issue were: Sen. Mark Udall, Democrat from Colorado; Sen. Mary Landrieu, Democrat from Louisiana; Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina; Rep. John Tierney, Democrat from Massachusetts; Rep. Jim Matheson, Democrat from Utah; and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, Republican from Idaho.

First archetype: How would the issue play in a GOP primary election, if the incumbent had taken the special exemption? We tested the case of Lindsey Graham, who already has three announced GOP primary challengers. After one week of messaging to the target universe, our after-action survey showed that his hard reelect number dropped 14 points, from 32/68 to 25/75; his hard vote against grew by 14 points, from 18/82 to 25/75; and he lost 12 points on the ballot test.

We also tested Mike Simpson of Idaho, who is being primaried by a Club for Growth-backed challenger. Reports say Simpson is also one of the louder voices objecting to language to remove the special exemption from the continuing resolution the House just passed and sent to the Senate.

He may want to rethink that: After the messaging, his hard reelect dropped 10 points, from 29/71 to 24/76; his hard vote against grew by 20 points, from 11/89 to 21/79; and he lost a whopping 29 points on the ballot test, falling from a 49/15 lead to a meager 30/25 lead. Any strategist will tell you an incumbent polling at just 30 percent on the ballot test is in serious trouble.

Clearly, the issue works for a challenger against an incumbent in a GOP primary. What about general election match-ups?

Mary Landrieu is a vulnerable red state Democrat. We pitted her against her likely general election challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy. After one week’s messaging, Landrieu’s hard reelect dropped 8 points, from 29/71 to 25/75; her hard vote against increased 16 points, from 39/61 to 47/53; but she only lost 2 points on the ballot test, moving from 32/57 to 30/57, largely because Cassidy is already maxing out the vote for a Republican in Louisiana. 

Jim Matheson is also a vulnerable red state House Democrat who fought off a tough challenger in 2012. That challenger, Republican Mia Love, is challenging him again in 2014. After one week’s messaging, his hard reelect dropped 4 points from 33/67 to 31/69; his hard vote against increased by 6 points, from 23/77 to 26/74; and he lost 9 points on the ballot test to Love, which turned a 48/34 lead into a 42/37 lead, just outside the margin of error.

So in addition to working in a GOP primary, the issue affects red state Democrats running for reelection, if the GOP challenger drives the necessary contrast.

Finally, what about Democrats who are in seemingly secure seats?

John Tierney is a Massachusetts Democrat who defeated a tough challenger named Richard Tisei in 2012. Tisei is challenging him again in 2014. After one week’s messaging, Tierney saw virtually no movement against him on either his hard reelect or his hard vote against, but he dropped 6 points on the ballot test, moving from 39/29 to a much tighter 38/34.

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