Catch of the Day: Voters Don't Care About CBO

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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he Catch goes to political scientist Alan Abramowitz for his reaction to the kerfuffle over the CBO report, the ACA, and misleading or mistaken media coverage:

3 key points on CBO forecasts:
1. They often turn out to be wrong
2. Conservatives frequently attack them
3. Voters don't care about them

It's the third one that matters. As Matt Yglesias explains, elections just don't turn on this sort of thing. The entire ability of electioneering and campaigns, everything from TV ads to candidate image to get-out-the-vote, only matters a few percentage points in fully contested elections, so it's just not remotely plausible that a talking point produced (fairly or not) out of a Congressional Budget Office report in February is going to change the way people vote in November.

In other words, Chris Cillizza and others who are arguing that the CBO report is really bad news for Democrats regardless of substance because it's easier for Republicans to spin it are just dead wrong. Cillizza said, "If Republicans were convinced that Obamacare was a bad thing for the country before the CBO report (and they were), now they are absolutely convinced that they have to show up at their polling places this fall to send a message to this president about the wrongheadedness of the law." But how big is that effect going to be? Are there actually a lot of Republican voters who used to hate Obamacare but not quite enough for them to go out to the polls in November, but this is the thing that will put them over the edge? Really? I mean, not anti-Obamacare Republicans who will be obsessed with this for a few days, but people who will stick with it?

Or, to put it another way: Republicans have been calling the ACA a jobs-killer for years. Will CBO certification (even if it really was CBO certification, and not just spin) actually change anything about their rhetoric, or how likely it is that someone believes it? Are there folks out there who aren't quite sure whether to believe Republican claims, but will now buy them because Republicans say that the CBO backs them? Again: really?

After all, the ACA is a large, complicated law, with all sorts of effects; even the most enthusiastic supporters would admit that it produces winners and losers. Which means that Republicans will have no trouble at all coming up with absolutely true and legitimate attacks on the law. At any rate, if they were willing to manipulate this particular CBO claim in a highly misleading way, as CIlizza said they are, that means that they would be willing to spin any number of other quasi-facts in highly misleading ways. Take this taking point away, and they just substitute another.

This kind of thing is routinely overrated as a major factor in elections, in part because reporters are conditioned to highlight breaking news and also probably because reporters talk a lot to campaign operatives whose lives really do revolve around gaffes and spin and talking points. Campaigns certainly do deal with such things, and probably have to in part to make sure that the the effects of any given negative story remain small. Individually, these controversies just aren't important to electoral outcomes.

So: nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

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