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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, May 20, 2014

At the public opinion polling community’s annual conference in Anaheim last week, Republican pollster Bill McInturff predicted we may soon see a shift in the messaging of his party’s television advertising about the Affordable Care Act. With the bulk of the GOP’s most acrimonious primaries about to end, its candidates can stop trying to outdo each other on just how completely they’d like to pulverize the entire ACA.

In the month of May alone, Republicans promoted pulverization in TV ads in eight different levels of primaries: for US Senate, US House, governor, lieutenant governor, state attorney general, state senator and representative, and public service commissioner.

Pointing to Public Opinion Strategies national omnibus polling data showing equal percentages of Americans ready to support candidates who want to “keep and fix” the ACA and “repeal and replace” it, McInturff suggested we will see a rhetorical shift in how Republicans advertise about the law. For example, ads might include more precise examples of what aspects of the law they would repeal, or more people providing testimonials to how they’ve been hurt by reform.

In fact, a shift already is underway. We’re talking about a universe of only a few ads so far, and a difference that can be measured in a few words. But after an estimated $418 million—per CMAG as of late April—invested in broadcast and national cable TV airtime calling for nothing short of the end of Obamacare, any change in rhetoric is worth watching—especially when initiated by one of the most prolific anti-“Obamacare” advertisers of the past four years.

Is it hello, “fix,” goodbye, “repeal?”

The US Chamber of Commerce hit the air on May 7 with four such ads. (The buy was widely reported; the messaging was not.) In MA-06, where voters know and like Obamacare as Romneycare, the Chamber ad goes: “[Richard] Tisei says, work in a bipartisan manner to fix healthcare the right way. Tisei’s plan? He wants to instill free-market solutions. End the job-killing tax on medical devices. And curb lawsuit abuse to bring down the cost of care. Fixing healthcare the right way…”

Of course, not every race is happening in Massachusetts. In perhaps more telling Kentucky, the Chamber’s ad supporting Rep. Andy Barr in KY-06 says, “On healthcare, Barr believes in putting people first, not government. That’s why he’s working to fix the Obamacare mess at every turn.” An ad for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reads (in text), “McConnell is leading the fight to fix this Obamacare mess.”

And in NV-03, the Chamber’s ad for Rep. Joe Heck says, “To Dr. Heck, it’s about fixing healthcare and making sure people get the care they need.”

For TV advertising as well as public opinion about the ACA, the fall 2013 implementation and all that came with it became a bright line of distinction. In 2010 and 2012, hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-Obamacare TV ads had little to go on beside threats of lost jobs and big government run amok. Implementation has been a candy store for anti-Obamacare advertisers in 2014: the healthcare.gov “train wreck” or “disaster,” higher premiums, cancelled policies, and President Obama’s suggestion that “if you like your doctor…”

On top of the news, we’re in a six-year-itch election and the healthcare law’s nickname happens to bear Obama’s name. A twofer. Of all the spending in congressional races so far that has paid for broadcast TV ads critical of Obama, 85% of that spending paid for ads specifically critical of Obamacare. Beyond just Congress, for all spending CMAG has tracked in 2014 advertising up and down the ballot, the overlap between anti-Obama and anti-Obamacare is 76%.

Republicans can shift rhetorical gears now knowing the damage to the first round of open enrollment has been done. Most early 2014 anti-Obamacare advertising happened in media markets with high populations of uninsured Americans. In North Carolina, 100% of all GOP broadcast ad occurrences aimed at Sen. Kay Hagan (D) contained criticisms of the law, according to CMAG data. Per an analysis by Civis Analytics and GMMB, the populations of the Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro media markets are all more than 20% uninsured.

In Louisiana, 95% of all occurrences targeting Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) criticized the law; the populations of the state’s key media markets are 23% uninsured or higher. Ditto Arkansas, where 67% of GOP occurrences against Sen. Mark Pryor (D) contained criticisms of the ACA. And in the FL-13 special election back in March, 75% of all GOP broadcast spots against Democratic nominee Alex Sink contained anti-Obamacare messages; the Tampa media market is more than 27% uninsured.

If the “fix” holds in GOP advertising, once again, Republicans will have arrived at a simpler line than Democrats, who continue to grapple with how to support the ACA—or at least, counter Republican attacks—in their ads and currently have at least three message tracks, all of which CMAG considers “pro-ACA.” The first, the “negative = positive” bucket, goes like this: “[My Republican opponent] would deny coverage for preexisting conditions and/or let insurers charge women more for healthcare or mammograms.”

The second, the “partial pro” bucket, sounds like this: “[Democratic incumbent] held insurers accountable and/or ensured coverage of preexisting conditions and affordable access for women.” A snappier version is Alex Sink’s, “Keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong.”

The third, the “yay, ACA” bucket, reserved for full-frontal televised embraces of “the President’s healthcare reform,” or claims of “helping the President pass healthcare reform,” remains a highly exclusive club to which, as best I can tell, only four advertisers belong: Rep. Allyson Schwartz and Katie McGinty, both competing in the crowded primary for governor, and Val Arkoosh and Daylin Leach, both competing in the equally crowded primary to replace Schwartz in the Philadelphia-area PA-13. Attorney General Doug Gansler of Maryland, running in the state’s Democratic primary for governor, deserves an honorable mention for asserting that “affordable care is a right” (while also pledging to fix Maryland’s busted website).

Of course, with all the “yay, ACA” ads limited to primaries so far, you have to wonder whether any Democrats will echo it in their general election campaigns. As McInturff said during our panel in Anaheim, Republicans’ big danger vis-à-vis the ACA is that voters ultimately come down on the side of “keeping and fixing” rather than “repealing and replacing.” But for Democrats, the big danger is that there’s not enough time to repair the negative impression people have about the law before Election Day.