So what to make of the new PPP poll suggesting that Demcorats are marginally better off passing health care than not? I take it seriously. But not too seriously, for the following reasons:
1. It's a national poll, but congressmen are running in local races. The poll shows that Democrats say they are more likely to turn out, and independents who like health care reform say they will like their representatives better, if it passes. But we don't know where those base members and HCR-favoring independents live. They probably are not clustered in a state like Arkansas, where over 60% of the voters polled by PPP (a Democratic outfit) reported that they were against health care reform. Motivating the base in California in New York isn't going to save Blanche Lincoln.
2. Polls are an okay guide to public opinion about things (with the usual caveats about framing). They are not a good guide to what people will do. Just ask the executives who brought you New Coke. The customers they surveyed overwhelmingly said they'd switch to New Coke. They weren't lying; they just didn't know what they were actually going to do.
3. Another round of health care legislating might drive its popularity down even further in the polls. Which would make passing the legislation even more costly.
4. Passing HCR has opportunity costs. Time spent negotiating this is time not spent passing some other piece of legislation that might actually move your popularity upward in November. Nancy Pelosi doesn't care about such fripperies; her seat is safe. But anyone in danger cares very much.
5. Passing health care will refresh the public's memory of it. The longer ago an electoral initiative happened, the less salient it is. In an election year, even three months matter.
6. Evidence from an actual election offers some counterevidence to the PPP poll:
There were two controversial pieces of legislation that defined the Clinton Administration for Republican-leaning voters: the assault weapons ban and the first Clinton budget (a.k.a. the tax hike). If we look at the fifteen Democrats who voted against both pieces of legislation, only one lost (she represented a district that gave Bush a 15-point win in 1992). In fact, about half of them saw their share of the vote increase or stay roughly the same from 1992!
Let's move on to Democratic incumbents who represented Republican-leaning districts who voted for only one of these two pieces of legislation. There were thirty-seven such Democrats. The casualty rate here is a little higher; thirteen of them, or thirty-five percent of them, lost. And of the twenty-two Democrats from Republican-leaning districts who voted for both pieces of controversial legislation, ten of them (45%) lost.
In other words, the problem for Democrats in 1994 was not that they didn't support Clinton's agenda enough. It was that they got too far out in front of their conservative-leaning districts and supported the President too much.
Maybe I'm a heartless econblogger type, but I'll take revealed preference over stated preference every time. Now who is willing to take the other side and argue that it was no easier for Republicans to campaign against real, existing, hated laws than to campaign against phantom ClintonCare?