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Health care and the campaign

Mar 30, 2012 - By Michael A. Memoli and Paul West MCT Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Even before the Supreme Court heard arguments about the constitutionality of the federal health care law, President Barack Obama's campaign had begun targeting key voter groups that might be most affected by a loss.

If the justices rule against the law -- an outcome that many think they strongly signaled during arguments Tuesday and Wednesday -- the way those slices of the electorate respond could go a long way toward determining the political impact.

The decision will land in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign, and although striking down the health law would be a huge policy defeat for Obama, analysts in both parties say that under some scenarios, he could gain politically by losing judicially.

Republicans will celebrate if the court strikes down the requirement that individuals buy insurance -- the least-liked part of Obama's signature legislative achievement. A Supreme Court ruling in their favor would validate GOP charges that Obama's plan is an unconstitutional overreach by the federal government.

But a ruling against the law would mean "that one of the most unpopular parts of the Obama record is obliterated without an election," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "That leaves plenty of other unpopular parts of the Obama record to run against, but it eliminates probably the most visible source of contention for center-right voters."

From Obama's standpoint, an adverse ruling could add fresh urgency to his attempts to re-energize dissatisfied elements of his liberal base. President Ronald Reagan's re-election paved the way for the conservative court of today. In his second term, Reagan appointed conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia and swing jurist Anthony M. Kennedy, and Obama can be expected to argue that his re-election would block a further shift to the right under a new Republican president.

If the justices throw out the administration's health care overhaul, it "might boomerang" on the Republicans, said Democratic pollster Mark Penn. "It will rally a lot of supporters to Obama, because they'll be worried that they won't be able to get the protections of universal health care."

It's exactly those supporters on whom the Obama campaign's stepped-up outreach efforts have focused -- particularly women, minorities and seniors. The campaign in recent days has organized events including phone banks in Ohio, a potluck in New Hampshire and a house party in New Mexico, all part of a "Women's Week of Action." In Virginia, Nurses for Obama was working to raise awareness about the law's benefits and train volunteers.

The campaign also released a report, in English and Spanish, detailing how as many as 9 million Latinos stood to gain coverage because of the law. Nearly a third of Latinos are uninsured, three times the rate for whites.

Absent from the campaign is the president himself, who has largely confined his comments on the issue to appearances at private fundraising events.

Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, noting the unpopularity of the health care law, said an unfavorable ruling "is not going to have some profound impact on an election that's going to be dominated by the economy, by candidate perceptions and world events." But the election may be so close that "a few minor things could be critical, and this could be one of them," he added.

The latest polling indicates that Americans' views have changed only marginally in the two years since Obama signed the law, though there were some positive indicators for his side. A CNN/Opinion Research survey released this week found 43 percent of respondents were in favor of the law and 50 percent against.

The favorable view had gone up 5 percentage points since November to the highest level in more than a year; the opposition was the lowest recorded by the firm. Support for the law was highest among nonwhite voters, 58 percent of whom favored the measure. The biggest gains in the survey were among women -- from 37 percent to 47 percent in favor -- and independents -- from 32 percent favoring the law in November to 41 percent today.

Repealing "Obamacare" has easily been the most reliable applause line for the 2012 Republican presidential candidates. The party's likely nominee, Mitt Romney, has vowed to let states opt out of the law if he becomes president, even though an individual mandate was the centerpiece of the universal coverage plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts. Obama has tweaked Romney over the issue by praising the Massachusetts law.

As the Obama campaign focuses on the issue, two impulses seem to be at work: a short-term effort timed to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the law and a general election strategy aimed at voting blocs that the campaign is courting.

In addition to the national report on how the law will affect Latinos, state-specific guides were circulated locally in battleground states. The Democratic National Committee paid for a campaign that sent 1 million pieces of mail to many of the same voters the campaign has wooed, promoting provisions such as coverage for children on their parents' health insurance plans until age 26.

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