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The Political Upshot of the Roberts Vote

A number of commentators have noted that one upshot of the Supreme Court largely affirming the Affordable Care Act is that it will help shape public opinion on the law, which is still a bit amorphous. I agree, and think the effect could be even larger than they realize.

If you look at recent polling, you find that around 35 percent of Americans support the law, around 40 to 45 percent oppose it, and the rest don’t really have an opinion. That suggests that about 20 to 25 percent of the country is in play, and the fact that the court has stamped the law with its imprimatur will surely sway some of them. 

But when pollsters specifically asked about the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling, they found an even bigger potential for movement. For example, a Wall Street Journal poll out earlier this week asked voters if they’d be "pleased," "unpleased," or have "mixed feelings" if the Court upheld the law. Twenty-eight percent said they’d be pleased, 35 percent said they’d be displeased, and 34 percent said they’d have mixed feelings. In the same poll, 41 percent opposed the law, suggesting that a not insignificant number of health-care opponents (6 percentage points, or about one-seventh) would be open to reconsidering their feelings—they would not be “displeased”—if the Court upheld it.

And that’s where John Roberts comes in. Had Anthony Kennedy been the deciding vote, the conventional wisdom would have been that this was a partisan decision with an unreliable and unpredictable swing-voter more or less arbitrarily siding with the liberals. But with the Court’s conservative chief justice providing the fifth vote, the decision has real heft. Not only is this likely to grab the attention of voters who had no opinion beforehand (though opinion-formation is simply beyond the capacity of some of them), it’s likely to get the attention of the fraction of health care opponents who told pollsters they wouldn’t necessarily be upset if the court affirmed the decision. And that could be a very big deal for the political legitimacy of the health care law going forward.    

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