If you talk to people who have run a few ballot initiative campaigns, they will tell you that it is very important to get the language perfect. A ballot initiative may contain a lot of popular provisions, but one unpopular provision can easily cause it to be voted down by the people. The electorate can’t separately decide on the individual components; it is forced to accept or reject the whole package. Often initiatives are only as popular as their least popular provision. It’s the weak link that breaks the chain.
We have seen the same basic dynamic at play with the lack of popular support for the Affordable Care Act. Once again a new Reuter-Ipsos poll confirms that there are many provision in the ACA that enjoy broad bipartisan support. For example 82 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support banning insurers from denying coverage based on pre-exisiting conditions. The problem is that the law doesn’t only contain this popular provision. It also contains highly unpopular ones, like the individual mandate, which this poll found is opposed by 61 percent of Americans.
Voters judge the whole law as a single package, but the unpopular provisions tend to be given more weight in people’s total analysis than the popular ones. As a result of some deeply unpopular provisions dragging down overall support, only 44 back the law as a whole, while 56 percent oppose.
The whole law isn’t unpopular despite containing popular provisions because, as some claim, Republicans brilliantly won the message war. It doesn’t mean people are making blind partisan decisions because of the name “Obamacare.” Obama is after all much more popular than Obamacare. It also doesn’t mean people are against the law because they are ignorant of the “good things” in the law or don’t understand the trade offs. A Washington Post poll found just 42 percent want the Supreme Court to throw out the entire law, but when told throwing out the whole law was the only way to get rid of the mandate, support for complete repeal jumped to 55 percent.
What we are seeing is simply a well known aspect of human judgment. It has been firmly understood as part of the politics of ballot measure for decades. Whole packages tend to be only as popular as their least popular provision.
This basic dynamic of human psychology doesn’t just apply to legislation, but to all aspects of our lives. For example I hate the chicken pasta with a caper based sauce because I can’t stand the taste of capers. The fact that I like chicken, I like pasta and enjoy 11 of the 12 ingredients in the sauce doesn’t matter. The capers ruin the taste of the entire dish for me.
Similarly, if you stay at a hotel and find a bunch of cockroaches in your bed, you would probably give the whole hotel a bad review. It doesn’t matter that those cockroaches are on fantastic 800 thread count sheets; all you really care about are the bugs. People simply tend put a lot of weight on the worst aspects when making an overall assessment.
The individual mandate is simply the cockroach in the bed of the Affordable Care Act.