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Democrats Damned If They Do; Damnder If They Don’t

Public Policy Polling has an interesting survey out today in which they ask about the generic Congressional ballot in the context of the Democrats’ actions on health care reform.

What they find is that Democrats initially lead the generic ballot 46-38. This is a somewhat better result than most other pollsters have found, probably because it’s a poll of registered — rather than likely — voters. But PPP, in spite of being a Democratic polling firm, has shown somewhat Republican-leaning results this year, so this is a pretty decent number for them.

If, however, Democrats fail to pass a health care plan, PPP finds that the Democratic advantage disappears, with the generic ballot instead tied at 40-40.

Surely, then, the Democrats’ numbers must improve if they do pass a health care plan?

Well, not so fast. PPP also asked people how they’d vote if the Democrats pass a health care bill that contains a public option, showing the Democrats ahead 46-41. That’s better than how they’d fare without passing a health care bill — although still slightly worse than the status quo.

To be honest, I’m not sure that this poll is quite as useful as it seems, because the main consequence of the Democrats’ course on health care is liable to be in terms of turnout — either motivating their base and/or energizing the Republican one. Projecting turnout is hard enough ordinarily, but especially so when you’re trying to condition it upon a hypothetical.

Still, the story that the poll tells seems to be about right. I don’t particularly expect a boost in the Democrats’ numbers if they pass a health care bill: the plan, after all, has become somewhat unpopular. Their numbers might even get a little worse. But I’d expect a larger drop in their numbers if they fail to pass health care. Then, you’re getting something close to the worst of both worlds: the people who don’t like health care are still going to blame you for making the effort, but the people who do like the plan will become despondent and wonder what the whole point of electing Democrats to the Congress was in the first place.

Put differently, it seems that the unpopularity of health care has already been mostly “priced in” to the Democrats’ numbers — and indeed they’ve paid a price for it, although the economy may still be the more important factor. But failing to pass a health care bill would not undo the damage: it would only make things worse by depressing the base, making leadership look incompetent, and producing week after week of horrible news cycles.

Sure, the “status quo” in which health care neither passes or fails might be the best case scenario for the Democrats. Better still might have been the scenario in which they’d looked at horrible unemployment numbers that rolled in month after month during the spring, and decided to forgo healthcare in lieu of more populist economic policies (something which, rumor has it, some very senior White House staff was urging back in May and June). But the Democrats can’t undo six months of debate on health care. Nor can the tenuous “status quo” hold. The health care bill, to state the obvious, is either going to pass or it’s going to fail — barring something completely out of left field like a major terrorist attack or another financial collapse, it will not just go away.

Both polling and common sense would seem to dictate that the best way for Democrats to cut their losses would be to pass a health care bill — particularly one with a public option — and then move on to debating financial regulation and a jobs program, where public sentiment should be more on their side. They should probably not expect to gain ground if they pass health care — but they’re likely to lose more if they don’t.

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