The poll data is clear and cuts across party lines: 92 percent of the public does not think it is right that Congress and their staff are letting the Obama administration exempt them from the costs of Obamacare. Yet it seems many in Congress still want to dismiss these findings in hopes that these sentiments won't translate into actual voter preferences.

Incumbents facing reelections shouldn't fool themselves. A recent real-world deployment of the issue shows it can powerfully impact candidates’ prospects.

We tested the effect of the congressional exemption issue in six different 2014 races, which represent different election archetypes. We launched incumbent-specific, small but targeted, week-long communications campaigns, using mail, phones and internet, (but no TV or radio), directed at 7,500 likely voters. Then we analyzed the criteria regularly used by campaign strategists to measure the strength of an incumbent’s reelection campaign: the "hard re-elect", or the percentage of voters who say they will vote to reelect the incumbent; the "hard vote against", or the percentage of voters who say they will vote against an incumbent; and the "ballot test", or how the incumbent fares when matched up against his challenger.

The incumbents against whom we tested the issue were: Sen. Mark Udall, Democrat from Colorado; Sen. Mary Landrieu, Democrat from Louisiana; Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina; Rep. John Tierney, Democrat from Massachusetts; Rep. Jim Matheson, Democrat from Utah; and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, Republican from Idaho.

Click here to view the IWV Utah 4th Congressional District Poll Summary (PDF)

Click here to view the IWV South Carolina Poll Summary (PDF)

Click here to view the IWV Massachussetts 6th Congressional District Poll Summary (PDF)

Click here to view the IWV Louisiana Poll Summary (PDF)

Click here to view the IWV Idaho 2nd Congressional District Poll Summary (PDF)

Click here to view the IWV Colorado Poll Summary (PDF)

First archetype: How would the issue play in a GOP primary election, if the incumbent had taken the special exemption? We tested the case of Lindsey Graham, who already has three announced GOP primary challengers. After one week of messaging to the target universe, our after-action survey showed that his hard reelect number dropped 14 points, from 32/68 to 25/75; his hard vote against grew by 14 points, from 18/82 to 25/75; and he lost 12 points on the ballot test.

We also tested Mike Simpson of Idaho, who is being primaried by a Club for Growth-backed challenger. Reports say Simpson is also one of the louder voices objecting to language to remove the special exemption from the continuing resolution the House just passed and sent to the Senate.

He may want to rethink that: After the messaging, his hard reelect dropped 10 points, from 29/71 to 24/76; his hard vote against grew by 20 points, from 11/89 to 21/79; and he lost a whopping 29 points on the ballot test, falling from a 49/15 lead to a meager 30/25 lead. Any strategist will tell you an incumbent polling at just 30 percent on the ballot test is in serious trouble.

Clearly, the issue works for a challenger against an incumbent in a GOP primary. What about general election match-ups?

Mary Landrieu is a vulnerable red state Democrat. We pitted her against her likely general election challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy. After one week’s messaging, Landrieu’s hard reelect dropped 8 points, from 29/71 to 25/75; her hard vote against increased 16 points, from 39/61 to 47/53; but she only lost -2 points on the ballot test, moving from 32/57 to 30/57, largely because Cassidy is already maxing out the vote for a Republican in Louisiana.

Jim Matheson is also a vulnerable red state House Democrat who fought off a tough challenger in 2012. That challenger, Republican Mia Love, is challenging him again in 2014. After one week’s messaging, his hard reelect dropped 4 points from 33/67 to 31/69; his hard vote against increased by 6 points, from 23/77 to 26/74; and he lost 9 points on the ballot test to Love, which turned a 48/34 lead into a 42/37 lead, just outside the margin of error.

So in addition to working in a GOP primary, the issue affects red state Democrats running for reelection, if the GOP challenger drives the necessary contrast.

Finally, what about Democrats who are in seemingly secure seats?

John Tierney is a Massachusetts Democrat who defeated a tough challenger named Richard Tisei in 2012. Tisei is challenging him again in 2014. After one week’s messaging, Tierney saw virtually no movement against him on either his hard reelect or his hard vote against, but he dropped 6 points on the ballot test, moving from 39/29 to a much tighter 38/34.

Mark Udall of Colorado is also considered safe in his seat but could face several challengers. We tested him against former Rep. Bob Beauprez, the 2006 GOP nominee for Governor. After the messaging, Udall dropped just 2 points in his hard reelect, from 28/72 to 27/73, but he saw his hard vote against increase by 10 points, from 28/72 to 38/62, and he lost 7 points on the ballot, dropping from a 38/40 dead heat to a 35/44 deficit.

So with a minimal push, the issue makes inroads even in places most analysts thought beyond reach.

The results are the political equivalent of the canary dying in the coal mine; perhaps Congress will finally pay attention and reverse this exemption this week in the Senate or else in the House as part of the continuing resolution negotiation.

Some may think that if they make a feint at undoing the exemption ruling, but watch that fail, that they can then avail themselves of the subsidy. But that is not the case: If members don’t decline the subsidy for themselves and their staffs, the public states that they still see this as preferring themselves and their paid staff over all their unpaid volunteers and constituents, and the price will be nearly as steep. In ID-02, for instance, 55% of GOP primary voters said they would vote against Mike Simpson to send a message even if he voted against ObamaCare but decided to keep the exemption for himself and his staff; just 7 percent said they would vote for him anyway.

As for the strategists, the message is clear: Get your incumbents on the right side of the issue, or spend election night on the edge of your seat; get your challengers on the right side of the issue, and prepare to win where you didn’t previously think possible.

Heather Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice. William W. Pascoe III consults on political strategy with IWV.


UPDATE: The Strength of the Anti-Obamacare Exemption Message A test case.

As featured in the Weekly Standard

Heather R. Higgins and William W. Pascoe III

September 26, 2013 10:44 AM

In a recent article we wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD (“The Canary In The Coal Mine,” Sept. 23, 2013), we reported on the findings of six surveys conducted to test the strength of the congressional exemption of Obamacare issue.

Included in that analysis was a report of a ballot test that showed Sen. Mary Landrieu trailing her GOP challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, by 30-57 percent. This number is well outside the norms of current Louisiana polling, in which Landrieu leads by a considerable margin – so we double-checked the weighting, adding in party affiliation and race as variables to see if that accounted for the discrepancy. Yet even after re-weighting, Landrieu was still losing to Cassidy 39/51, or -12pts, in our test group.

Why such a discrepancy from other polls? It is important to understand that the polling we reported, as we said, was done among a subset of 7,500 likely Louisianan voters who had served as a test group, receiving a week’s worth of light but apparently still quite effective messaging on the congressional exemption issue.

Because our aim is to assess the efficacy of not only the message but also the message delivery vehicles, we also polled a control group made up of likely voters who had received no information about the Congressional exemption, also now weighted similarly for party affiliation and race. Among the control group, made up of people who didn’t know about the congressional exemption, Landrieu was in fact leading Cassidy by 46/34, or +12 points – in line with other current Louisiana polling. Contrast that with the test group, where before we even mentioned the exemption in the survey questionnaire, one week of light messaging turned the ballot test to 39/51, combining a -7 drop for Landrieu with a +17 gain for Cassidy, yielding an overall net -24 point difference in Landrieu’s standing on the ballot.

Among Republicans, the ballot test moved from 82/8 for Cassidy in the control group to 91/2 for Cassidy in the test group, reflecting a significant +15 point hardening of his support among Republicans. Among Democrats, the ballot moved from 68/11 for Landrieu in the control group to 63/26 for Landrieu in the test group, reflecting an even more significant -20 point shift away from Landrieu in her own base. And among Independents? The biggest move of all – from 29/23 for Cassidy in the control group to 57/30 for Cassidy in the test group, a +21 point increase for Cassidy among independents. In other words, whereas roughly half the independents in the control group were undecided, only 13 percent were undecided in the test group – and the vast majority who chose a side broke to Cassidy.

The strength of the message is further seen in noting how quickly and notably it affects sentiment when people learn of it. (Which is why Sen. Reid has tried so hard to obfuscate what Sen. Vitter is trying to do by attempting to block the exemption.) The format of the poll asked the initial ballot test question, then tested how well the issue of and facts about the congressional exemption were known, then assessed again, “if it were true”, what that would do to people’s ballot test. In the group that had already received our messaging, there was essentially no difference in their before and after ballot test, indicating they had already fully absorbed and formed an opinion about the congressional exemption; the information contained in the survey questionnaire was not new to them. But in the control group, where the information was new, the messages contained in the survey itself moved the ballot from 46/34 for Landrieu to 34/29 for Landrieu, from +12 to just +5, a -7 point drop.

(You’ll note that Cassidy’s score dropped on the ballot, too. What happened? About a quarter of Landrieu’s supporters and a quarter of Cassidy’s supporters responded by moving to the “Undecided” column – most likely because of the anti-incumbent information contained in the questions themselves, which raised doubts about the integrity of all incumbent politicians, and drove disgusted supporters of each of them into the “Undecided” column in equal proportions.)

The bottom line? Incumbents ought to be very, very scared of some of their colleagues imagining this will blow over.