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Healthcare: The Doomsday Vote for Democrats

 Released: 3/12/2012 3:00 PM EDT 

Newswise — Despite the numerous votes that passed through the House of Representatives during the 111th United States Congress, health care reform may have single-handedly given Democrats a crippling blow, costing them majority control, according to a new study.

“The study suggests that a yes vote on health care reform led voters to perceive their member of Congress as more ideologically distant from themselves, even after considering the member’s overall voting record,” said Seth Masket, professor of political science at the University of Denver. “This vote appeared to have an even greater effect than the member’s overall ideology or party voting record in making them appear ‘out of step’ with their voters’ wishes.”

In all, 63 Democratic incumbents were defeated in 2010, handing Republicans their largest gain in the House since 1938.

“We further found that had it not been for health care reform, Democrats likely would have at least 25 additional House seats today, maintaining control of the chamber.” As the authors sum up, “Health care reform was a bold move by Democrats, and it prompted a strong response.”

The health care reform vote ultimately met all five criteria the study outlines necessary to create a backlash. First, incumbents cast a vote that contradicted the median voter in many districts. Secondly, information about the vote was disseminated among the public. Third, the vote caused voters to update their belief systems about their member of Congress. Fourth, voters with updated belief systems saw their incumbents as more ideologically distant from them and cast their votes on that basis. Finally, enough voters changed enough votes to cause a substantial number of incumbents to lose their seats as a result. The combination yielded numbers in 2010 that proved devastating for Democrats.

“Previous work has demonstrated an association between support for certain pieces of legislation and vote share but has not identified a causal mechanism,” the authors write. “We propose such a mechanism. Support for controversial legislation causes voters to see their representatives as more ideologically distant. In the 2010 election, health care reform appeared to cost Democrats a large number of votes, primarily by making them appear more liberal.”

Seeing health care reform as a negative selling point, Republicans jumped on the topic leading up to the election while Democrats were less likely to pat themselves on the back for their accomplishment. Initial estimates from the Wesleyan Media Project show that Republicans mentioned health care in television ads three times as much as Democrats and that 70 percent of those were attack ads.

Seth Masket co-authored the paper with Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California, John Sides of George Washington University and Steven Greene of North Carolina State University.

The findings were published in American Politics Research in March.