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Obamacare doesn't poll well. So why is an Arkansas senator running on it?

Obamacare doesn't poll favorably. But do you know what does? The different policies that make up Obamacare, when they're separated from the law's brand.

People who follow health policy closely know this — and so do politicians, as ads airing in advance of the 2014 midterms are showing.

Arkansas's Democratic senator Mark Pryor attracted attention last week for airing a political ad where he obliquely claimed responsibility for some legislation that did some things people might think were good.

"No one should be fighting an insurance company while you're fighting for your life," Pryor declares in the ad. "That's why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions."

That law just happens to be Obamacare.

Obamacare's popularity problem

In recent months, polls show Obamacare getting less popular. Fifty-three percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the health law, up from 45 percent in June,  according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's most recent poll.

But when pollsters break out the specific components of the health law, respondents tend to change their tune. Individual elements of health reform — health insurance subsidies, banning insurers from discriminating against pre-existing conditions, eliminating co-pays for preventive care — enjoy broad and bipartisan support.


But people still don't understand health reform

There's another major caveat when it comes to polling on Obamacare: four years after passage, people are still incredibly confused about what the reform law does and doesn't do.

Normally, when the public doesn't understand the intricacies of some complex piece of legislation, we still lend considerable weight to opinion polls. Political science sides with the notion that politicians are adequate proxies for their constituents: when people learn more about a given law, their prior beliefs grow stronger, not weaker.

But Obamacare might not fit quite so neatly into that theory. According to Kaiser's polling, not only are those individual provisions of health reform popular, general awareness that they are part of Obamacare is lagging.


To be fair, that poll was conducted in March; it's possible the public has learned more about the reform law in the interim. But the newest data we have doesn't inspire much confidence.

Kaiser asked different questions in their July poll, but the results are still discouraging. Only 37 percent of the public understood that people shopping in the new health insurance marketplaces could choose from a variety of private plans. Over a quarter of Americans believe that people who gained coverage under the health law enrolled in a single government plan.

Fully 38 percent of respondents didn't know enough about the law to answer the question.

Politicians on both sides are using this to their advantage

In his recent ad, Pryor is clearly taking advantage of the fact that what the law does is perceived much more favorably than the brand of the law itself.

On the flip side, there's Representative Tom Cotton, Pryor's Republican challenger. When pressed, Cotton fell back to vague conservative platitudes about Obamacare: it's one-size-fits all, there should be fewer rules and regulations, it should be repealed. What Cotton didn't do was talk about the specifics of the law — including Arkansas's private Medicaid expansion, which has helped cut state's uninsured rate nearly in half.

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