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Time to Start Counting Yes Votes

It’s sure starting to look like both the momentum and the math favor the Democrats and that something will have to go wrong to prevent them from getting to 216 votes on health care.

Recall that what we have here is a collective action problem. The overwhelming majority of Democratic members believe that this bill would be good for their party politically. They may very well be wrong — but that’s what they believe. And something close to 100 percent, I’d imagine, must think that it would be good policy. However, some number less than 216 would in a perfect world want to vote for it themselves. The optimal outcome for a lot of these guys is that the bill passes in spite of their objection — box ‘C’ in the table below.

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With that paradigm in mind, I’d think a well-run whipping operation would proceed in essentially two phases. The first phase would consist of counting the hard no’s. These are the people in box D: they’re not prepared to vote for the bill even if it causes the bill to fail. There’s a big difference between these Congressmen and those in box C, who would rather not vote for health care but probably would if they absolutely had to.

The second phase would be to sort out the Cs: which of them are going to have to make good on that promise that they’d help you out in a pinch, and which of them get a pass? Instead of counting noes, you’re now starting to count yesses. This phase is not easy — not at all easy — but it’s where Pelosi and the floor leadership get to exercise their home-court advantage, employing all the carrots and sticks at their disposal as well as their ability to determine the timing and floor procedure for the vote(s).

It appears now that the first phase is over, and that the hard no’s do not number 216 and may indeed be a ways from it. David Dayen puts the number of hard no’s at 207; his is the smartest whip count out there but I’ll bet there are errors there on both sides, since someone who’s really a C might want to disguise themselves as a D and vice versa. In any event, we haven’t seen very many categorical statements against the bill from people who voted for it originally, which would be the surest sign of trouble. And some of the statements that seemed categorical — Luis Gutierrez, say — have (predictably) turned out not to be. Even Bart Stupak hinted that he wanted the bill to pass — might Stupak be a closet ‘C’? I wouldn’t place a high probability on Stupak voting for the bill, but if the leadership found some way for him to save face, I don’t think it would be out of the question.

By the way, I think you explicitly do want to be knocking on doors of members who seem like hard no’s, but might in fact not be (even if this leads to panicky stories at Politico) — some people who you thought were D’s might turn out to be C’s, like Dennis Kucinich did. And when you’re herding up the C’s later on, you’ll be more credible when you’ve done your due diligence. Someone who’s in a tough Midwestern R+7 district but prepared to take a leap of faith is going to wonder why John Adler got a pass in a cushy, suburban R+1 — these are the sort of things that can cause the process to break down. Even if you can’t get an Adler to flip, you’re going to have to be able to articulate his excuses.

Over the last 24-48 hours — coinciding with the release of the CBO score — we’ve now moved into the second phase, which is counting up the yesses. And so far, Democrats are doing a pretty good job of it. Firm-seeming yes votes from different people representing different constituencies — Kucinich (wavering liberals), Markey (swing-district), Gordon (retirees), Gutierrez (Hispanics) have been unveiled, with one or two others looking likely to follow. As Dayen pointed out earlier today, if you take the seeming yes votes and add them to the people who are uncommitted but voted for the bill last time around, they add up to 217. This math isn’t foolproof but by any means but that’s a pretty important threshold to pass.

The question is what could cause the process to unravel. There’s some intrinsic, nonspecific instability in the process, certainly, which will not completely be resolved until the vote is actually taken on the floor. (If Pelosi says she has the votes, and schedules a vote, I’d still build in a 5-10 percent hedge against something going wrong during the roll call.) But I’m not sure if there are any specific things that could interfere with the process: the CBO hurdle has been cleared, the polls are getting better rather than worse — Congress is getting a lot of phone calls, and the impact of constituent feedback should never be dismissed, but what they’re getting now pales in comparison to the Town Hall protests that they survived over the summer. The one exception might be this whole business over deem-and-pass. You seem to have at least one or two Democrats who won’t vote for the bill if the deem-and-pass strategy is employed and a couple others who won’t for the bill unless the deem-and-pass strategy is applied — so maybe you have 216 members between the two groups but not quite enough to endorse any one strategy. On the other hand, if these angels-on-pinheads problems are the worst thing that Democrats have to contend with, you’d have to consider them a favorite to get their bill passed. (Not that the discussion should be that hard to resolve — deem-and-pass is the manifestly inferior option politically.)

I’m not sure if you should particularly care about the little 5 or 10 point hedges (usually to the pessimistic side) that I’ve periodically been recommending around the Intrade contract on the chances of reform passing. Even if you staffed a whole room full of the smartest vote-counters, modelers and analysts and had them work 24/7 on trying to beat the Intrade contract, I’m not sure if they could come up with anything sufficiently rigorous to provide them with a real advantage. (That doesn’t necessarily mean the market is “efficient”, but we’ll save that conversation for another day.) But for what it’s worth, the Intrade contract, which is trading at 75 percent right now, now looks about right to me or perhaps even a hair pessimistic.

UPDATE: Stephen Lynch is apparently still a firm no in Massachusetts. I’ll believe it when I see it since everyone in his inner circle wants him to vote for the thing, but that would nullify the effect of picking up Kucinich.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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