The Latest Bogus Obamacare Spin: The Ad Gap

Has Obamacare been outspent on the airwaves? Only if you don’t count the biggest source of Obamacare ads.

The last diehard supporters of Obamacare have a new excuse for its pervasive and persistent unpopularity: that there are just too many negative ads out there convincing Americans that Obamacare is a bad idea. But this argument is based on obviously misleading statistics.


President Obama’s April 1 now-infamous a football-spiking “Mission Accomplished” speech kicked off the latest round of this meme:

[T]his law is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s working. It’s helping people from coast to coast, all of which makes the lengths to which critics have gone to scare people or undermine the law…Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been debunked. There are still no death panels. (Laughter.)…[T]he debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.(Applause.)

…And we didn’t make a hard sell. We didn’t have billions of dollars of commercials like some critics did. But what we said was, look for yourself, see if it’s good for your family. And a whole lot of people decided it was. So I want to thank everybody who worked so hard to make sure that we arrived at this point today.

The latest entrant in this sweepstakes is a “study” the media has presented as being done by “nonpartisan analysts”:

The report, released Friday by nonpartisan analysts Kantar Media CMAG, estimates $445 million was spent on political TV ads mentioning the law since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Spending on negative ads outpaced positive ones by more than 15 to 1.

Outside of Social Security and Medicare, “no other law has come close to these amounts, much less within such a short period of time,” said Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media. “It speaks to the intensity of the opposition among the ACA’s political critics” and their belief that the health care issue will benefit their party in this year’s elections, she said.

As the November midterm elections approach, the picture looks much the same, Wilner said, although a few pro-Democratic ads are countering with messages supporting the health law and a few pro-Republican ads have gone from a flat-out call for repeal to a message of replacing the law with “free-market solutions.”

In the 2014 congressional races, 85 percent of the anti-Obama ads were also anti-“Obamacare” ads, the analysis found. In some competitive races, 100 percent of the pro-Republican TV ads aimed at Democrats contained anti-health law messages.

Over the four years, an estimated $418 million was spent on 880,000 negative TV spots focusing on the law, compared to $27 million on 58,000 positive spots, according to the analysis. Nearly all of the spending was on local TV stations, in races ranging from state offices such as treasurer and governor to Congress and the presidential election.


Steve Benen of the Rachel Maddow Show Blog presents this analysis in pie chart form, and asks:

Benen Pie Chart 5.19.14

[W]hy does the public still disapprove of the Affordable Care Act?

Perhaps because they’ve seen some of the 880,000 attack ads.

In fact, maybe I’m the oddball on this, but given the one-sided advertising, shouldn’t the ACA be a lot less popular?

There are four big problems with this analysis. First and foremost, it ignores the fact that the landscape of commentary on Obamacare, and even specifically paid advertising, has been limited to the subset of ads considered by this study. What is missing is the $674 million in taxpayer money spent to market and promote the virtues of the ACA, most of it in the past year, a tidal wave of spending that easily dwarfs the political ad buy:

Obamacare Pie Chart

Second, that’s without counting the free media generated by the President of the United States and his celebrity allies in touting the benefits of the ACA. It’s egregiously dishonest to suggesting that this wasn’t a “hard sell” but just a scrappy, underfunded plucky little federal government outnumbered and outgunned by the big bad Koch brothers. As Caleb Howe noted:

Get Covered You Rubes

You didn’t make a hard sell?? In what universe are the OFA ads, the thousands of carefully crafted tweets, the celebrity endorsements, the endless speeches by the President and every other democrat in every city, county, state, region, principality, protectorate, bus station, nebula, star cluster, dimension and PLANE OF EXISTENCE EVERY SINGLE MINUTE OF EVERY SINGLE DAY SINCE THEY FIRST PULLED OBAMACARE OUT OF THEIR COLLECTIVE NO NO AREAS NOT A HARD SELL???

Pitching from every rooftop and every television and every station. Is that a hard sell?

I’m sorry. I probably seem agitated. I should get some Obamacare for that.

But I’m asking. Is having Ellen say America owes our thanks to Obama for this program a hard sell? Are campaign ads touting Obamacare a hard sell? Are dozens and dozens of town halls a hard sell? Are the hours of free air time from MSNBC, including ridiculous ad campaigns for the network touting Obamacare, a hard sell? Are the hundreds of “viral” content pushes a hard sell? Are sports legends telling you to Get Covered a hard sell? Is Valerie Jarrett hocking her wares in Hollywood a hard sell? IS THAT a hard sell? Tell me! Tell me what a hard sell is!

Is asking citizens to investigate which of their friends and family aren’t pro Obamacare and then berate them for it … is THAT a hard sell?


As you’ll recall, that sales campaign was so reeking in desperation that it was parodied on Saturday Night Live with Obama kissing Justin Bieber on the mouth to sell insurance. pushing moms to evangelize Obamacare to their kids.

UPDATE: Then there’s Organizing For Action, the Obama campaign arm, which is now cutting back staff it had employed to market the ACA:

[T]he group’s workforce has shrunk in recent months from a high of more than 200 to just over 100 paid employees, according to a Democrat familiar with the group’s workings.

The reduction came as OFA was winding down a major enrollment push for Obama’s health care law. The group had staffed up for that campaign and to manage 1,700 participants in its fellowship program, and some were on temporary contracts. Most – but not all – of the departing staffers worked on those projects.

But somehow, now after all of that, when it turns out that Obamacare is still unpopular, the problem is that, gosh-darn it, nobody has tried to sell it.

Third, Obama and Benen are basically admitting the failure of one of their chief talking points, to wit, their contention that the 2012 election was a referendum on Obamacare. Obama, after all, spent a billion dollars getting re-elected, and we’ve been told that “the debate is over” because that election ratified Obamacare, sort of the way the 2004 election ratified the Iraq War. To say that not a penny of the pro-Obama spending was pro-Obamacare spending is to implicitly admit that he did not get re-elected on the popularity of his healthcare plan. And it’s not as if Democrats and their billionaire backers, unions and dark-money interest groups – who are not, contrary to spin, being massively outspent by the Koch brothers – are unable to put more money into advertising; the fact that ACA critics are running campaign ads on the topic and its defenders are not is a sign that political professionals know the public has already made its mind up, and their money speaks louder than words as to what they think the voters will respond to.


Fourth, Obamacare’s unpopularity is not a new thing. RCP’s polling average goes back to November 2009, and the program’s popularity has been at least 4.7 points underwater every single day of the past four and a half years, and more than double digits underwater for the great majority of the period (only for a few days in August 2012 did it rise above -5):

Obamacare RCP Average

The only really large-scale spike in unpopularity came in late 2013, and was associated not so much with campaign ads as with the disastrous rollout of the online exchanges. If anything, the persistence of the polling on this issue suggests that few minds are likely to be changed by TV ads (you’ll recall that a major theme of the 2012 postmortems was the ineffectiveness of TV ad campaigns at changing minds). At some point, you just have to admit that the reason Obamacare is unpopular is that people don’t like it.


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