Did Obamacare Nearly Cost Terry McAuliffe The Election?

Republicans are contending that the nearly won the Virginia Governor's race by emphasizing Obamacare in the closing weeks, but the evidence supporting that contention is far from clear.

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Despite having lost the Virginia Gubernatorial Election, Republicans are claiming something of a political victory in the race nonetheless. Essentially, they say, Terry McAuliffe nearly lost the election because of the Cuccinelli campaign’s decision to focus on the Affordable Care Act during the closing weeks of the campaign, especially in the wake of the failures that became apparent after the October 1st signup date:

The main news stories of the last two weeks of the race were about the botched rollout of the health exchanges and troubling revelations about people getting kicked off their health plans.

Cuccinelli called the off-year election a referendum on Obamacare at every stop during the final days.

“Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare,” Cuccinelli said in his concession speech Tuesday night.

When President Barack Obama crossed the Potomac for McAuliffe on Sunday, he glaringly avoided even mentioning his signature accomplishment — trying instead to link Cuccinelli with the federal government shutdown.

Exit polls show a majority of voters — 53 percent — opposed the law. Among them, 81 percent voted for Cuccinelli and 8 percent voted for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. McAuliffe won overwhelmingly among the 46 percent who support the health care overhaul.

Cuccinelli actually won independents by 9 percentage points, 47 percent to 38 percent, according to exit polls conducted for a group of media organizations. They made up about one-third of the electorate.

“Obamacare helped close the gap,” said Richmond-based strategist Chris Jankowski, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

At first glance, it’s a compelling argument. For more than a month, the race in Virginia seemed to be slipping out of Ken Cuccinelli’s hands as poll after poll showed Terry McAuliffe riding a consistent and building lead while Cuccinell’s own numbers remained stubbornly stagnant. Things got worse for Cuccinelli when Congressional Republicans decided to engage in a foolish strategy involving a government shutdown and the pledge to defund Obamacare. As the shutdown dragged on, polling in the Commonwealth showed Cuccinelli being hurt by the shutdown even though he was clearly distancing himself from the entire strategy and from its chief architect, Ted Cruz. After the shutdown ended, though, and public attention began focusing on the problems with the Obamacare website, there was at least some evidence that the race was tightening in Cuccinelli’s favor. At the time, both I and other observers attributed this to the natural tightening you see in any political race. However, with the race now over and the final results far closer than nearly any poll was predicting, the idea that pushing the Obamacare theme as the Cuccinelli campaign emphasized that theme somehow helped close the gap seems like a natural conclusion to reach. Indeed, that theme was a Republican talking point by early this morning.

Greg Sargent was among the first to push back on the entire premise of this argument:

It’s hard to look at last night’s results as a definitive declaration of public opinion on Obamacare either way — whether for or against. The only conclusion I think you can begin to draw from the results is that an absolutist position against the law doesn’t command sufficient support to win statewide in Virginia, a state that is widely seen by observers as a key indicator of national demographic and political trends. The law is probably still on probation with many voters, but the law’s most ardent foes are wrong — they just don’t represent a majority or mainstream position.

According to the exit polls, only 27 percent of Virginia voters saw the health law as the top issue, and among them, only a bare plurality (49-45) supported Cuccinelli. Far more (45 percent) named the economy.


It’s certainly possible rollout problems shifted the outcome a bit; even some Virginia Dems believe this. But the unabashedly pro-Obamacare candidate still won the race. This, even though an unresolved Obamacare policy question — whether the state should opt in to the Medicaid expansion — was a key issue in yesterday’s election, one that McAuliffe frequently cited, and even though the voting occurred at precisely the moment when the crush of anti-Obamacare press was about as bad as it can get.

If we must draw a conclusion about Obamacare here, it probably should be that scorched earth opposition to it isn’t nearly as widespread or fervent as its foes claim. But many of its most ardent opponents are impervious to the realities of public opinion — inside their bubble, the American people supported the government shutdown.

In another post, Sargent posted that McAuliffe’s chief pollster claimed that Cuccinell’s stance on the PPACA actually cost him votes in the election, but that seems to be based more on their own internal polling than on the results of the election itself so it’s unclear how robust that pollster’s analysis actually is.

Even using exit polling, it’s hard to state for certain what motivated voters as they went to the polls. Indeed, exit polling itself is meant to be interpretive of election results and not definitive, so they should be taken with a grain of salt when trying to figure out the question of why voters went for one candidate or the other. In most cases, and with most voters, there are typically a number of motivating factors rather than just a single on. So, while it’s probable that the problems with the Affordable Care Act motivated some people to some degree, it’s hard to say that it was really a deciding issue. Moreover, the fact that McAuliffe explicitly said in the campaign that he favored expanding the law’s reach in Virginia by taking advantage of the Medicaid expansion provisions and still won, suggests strongly that the law didn’t play as big a role in the race as Jomblowski and others would like to believe As I said this morning, it’s more likely that what happened in Virginia is more a reflection of the fact that, even with two Obama victories, two Democratic Senators, and Democrats holding at least two of the three statewide Constitutional offices, Virginia is still a purple and competitive state. Had the Republicans nominated a candidate that didn’t alienate Independent and swing voters the way Cuccinelli did, they likely would’ve done much better than they did

FILED UNDER: 2013 Election, Healthcare Policy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I think what almost defeated T-Mack is that he’s such a reptile he could be a Spiderman villain.

  2. David M says:

    The insurance companies are sending out the misleading cancellation letters before the federal exchange is completely functional for everyone has caused some fairly negative publicity for Obamacare, but McAullife still won.

    Those two issues are are likely only momentary disruptions, so it seems unlikely that “repeal Obamacare” will be a winning issue in 2014.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Did it nearly cost him the election? No. I don’t know how the major pollsters got their numbers but internal Democratic polls alway showed that the margin was between 2 and 4 percent. The pollsters did come pretty close in the LTG race but in that case the Republican was a complete nut case.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Obamacare did not seem to hurt Bill de Blasio. Fox News does not want to talk about that.

    Aside from the corporations he is a toady for, no one likes McAuliffe. Democrats do not like the guy.

    I am sure the GOP will read a great deal into this, but I am not seeing it as part of a trend.

  5. ernieyeball says:

    Republicans are contending that the (sic) nearly won the Virginia Governor’s race by emphasizing Obamacare in the closing weeks,..

    “Nearly won?..” Like the St. Lewis Stinkbirds nearly won the World Series this year.
    How about: Republicans LOST the Virginia Governor’s race by emphasizing Obamacare in the closing weeks.

    Close is for horseshoes and hand grenades.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Please don’t call Cruz an Architect. That title has a very specific meaning and you are mis- using it.

    Beyond that… Dems lost the Governors race by 17 points last go round. They won this time by 3 points. I think Jameses take is more likely … a lot of folks couldn’t stand to vote for either.

  7. JWH says:

    I would bet dollars to doughnuts that focusing on Obamacare AND NOMINATING BILL BOLLING would have sealed the election for the Virginia GOP.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    Cuccinelli just came off as a creepy right-wing loon who wanted to stick things up women’s vay-jay-jays and peep into people’s bedrooms.

    Aside from that, it’s amusing to watch the Republican pundits read the tea leaves. Am also sure that they’ll come to the conclusion that the reason they didn’t win was because Cooch was insufficiently conservative and If Only They Had Run A Real Conservative they would have won Virginia by 90%. (The fact that the even-more-conservative candidate got whipped like a red-headed stepchild will, of course, conveniently be forgotten.)

  9. edmondo says:

    Wait until you see how many seats Obamacare costs the Democrats in 2014.

  10. stonetools says:

    From what I see online, conservatives believe the main reasons Cuccinelli lost are the spinelessness of the national Republican Party who abandoned Cuucinelli when he could have won and the perfidy of libertarians who voted for Sarvis instead of swallowing and voting for the social conservative.

    I think the drumbeat of bad news over the last two weeks must have had some effect. Clearly, though, it wasn’t decisive, or we would be talking about Governor Cuccinelli. Given a clear choice between the guy who wants to extend Obamacare and the guy who wants to do away with Obamacare, Virginia chose the former.
    Going forward, it seems that the Republicans have made such a “white whale” of Obamacare that they are going to continue to ascribe special significance to it and to double down on trying to repeal it. Expect to see more Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare at the national level and resistance by the Virginia legislature in extending Medicaid.
    In light of Michael’s post, what’s interesting is that liberal purists, who back in 2000 would have rejected Macauliffe as a corporate boot-licker, united behind Macauliffe and never wavered in their support for him. Looks like the days of the disorganized Democratic Party are over.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Weren’t you saying it was unconstitutional not so long ago???

  12. stonetools says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I’m sure that in a year or two Edmondo will be talking about the success of the “market” approach to universal health insurance first advocated by the Heritage Foundation and pioneered by the farsighted Governor Romney and the importance of not spoiling it with a “socialistic” public option.

  13. David M says:


    Wait until you see how many seats Obamacare costs the Democrats in 2014.

    I’m still curious as to what you think should have been passed instead of Obamacare and how Obamacare should be reformed now.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    Can anyone explain to me whey no one is associating McA’s win with the government shutdown? VA is hugely dependent on Federal employment in one way or another. Don’t you think the Republican candidate doing so bad against a sleazy lobbyist Dem has to have something to with the Republican ownership of the furlough, the keep-working-but-we-won’t-pay-you-lough (or whatever it’s called), the efforts to take away health benefits from government employees and to just generally slag government employees as inhuman scum?

  15. stonetools says:

    @David M:

    The right has long moved on from even pretending that it wants to “replace” Obamacare, or that it cares about the plight of the uninsured. Now in seeking its repeal, the right is simply making a raw appeal to selfishness. It’s just IGMFU, without the hypocrisy. At least that’s honest.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    Wait until you see how many seats Obamacare costs the Democrats in 2014.

    Oh look, Pat Cadell is back…

  17. MarkedMan says:

    Very dangerous for the country that one of our two significant parties has abandoned all efforts to actually govern, instead expending all their efforts in trying to screw the other party regardless of the consequences for the country.

  18. David M says:


    Just trying to expand the conversation beyond “obamacare sucks”, which is much, much more difficult than it should be.

  19. James Pearce says:


    Wait until you see how many seats Obamacare costs the Democrats in 2014.

    This is pretty typical of the right these days. Hope for the best and don’t plan for the worst.

    The strategy has yet to produce results, but not because it’s a bad strategy. You just have to “wait” for the right time and the right conditions. No heavy lifting or hard work required.

  20. Barry says:

    @stonetools: And condemning people who call it ‘Obamacare’ as people dishonestly stealing the credit which belongs to the (presently) GOP House who passed it.

  21. Tyrell says:

    Maybe someone can help me here. Is the so-called “Bronze” plan a viable option for a family member who is 59, has no health plan, but cannot afford the better plans, and does not qualify (according to the Kaiser calculator) for a subsidy. I know it has a high deductible and high co-pay ratio. I get conflicting advice and information about this and I know some of you can help us out here on what to do. A private plan is way too expensive and our insurance agent said that he expects most of his carriers to go out anyway. At this point, we have few options. Even the Bronze plan is very expensive ($616.00 a month). We are thinking about just continuing to pay as we go and not worry about it. Maybe something else will come along or we can wait it out until they can get on Medicare. We really do not know what to do, but $616 is our food money and might as well be $616,000.
    “D____ ! the torpdoes, full speed ahead” (Admiral Farragut, USN)

  22. rudderpedals says:

    @Tyrell: Did Kaiser indicate why there are no subsidies? Subsidies should be available up to four times the poverty level to cap these folks’ premium at 10% of their income.

  23. Mikey says:

    @rudderpedals: Depending on whether Tyrell’s state expanded Medicaid or not, they might fall into the hole between where Medicaid would have subsidized (but doesn’t since it wasn’t expanded) and where the federal subsidy starts.

    Medicaid ‘doughnut hole’ leaves many working poor without healthcare subsidies

  24. rudderpedals says:

    @Mikey: Great point.

  25. Pinky says:

    @MarkedMan: I “liked” your comment. BTW, which party were you referring to?

  26. al-Ameda says:

    The main problem with Ken Cuccinelli is that quite often he opened his mouth and … said things – which usually had a negative effect on his campaign.

    He seems to me to be a lot like some people you see speak at a public meeting. At first, maybe for about a minute or two, you think, ‘that guy raises a good point,’ then he goes on for another 3 minutes, then you realize, ‘oh … he’s like that.’

  27. michael reynolds says:


    Well, anything is going to seem expensive for a 59 year-old free rider.

    I’m 59 and self-employed and I’m overjoyed with the Obamacare rate here in California. It saves me $5000 a year for a better plan compared to what I currently pay, which is $2300 a month for a family of four.

    If you can stay healthy for another five years or so you hit Medicare. Of course I think you’ll have a tax penalty to pay.

    Health care is very, very expensive in this country under the system the Republicans are so nostalgic for, and getting more expensive by the day. We should have gone single payer but the GOP made that impossible. So we have this plan that I see as an interim stage before we grow the hell up, toss out some more Republicans and join the rest of the developed world.

  28. David M says:


    a family member who is 59, has no health plan, but cannot afford the better plans, and does not qualify (according to the Kaiser calculator) for a subsidy.

    We need to know the state they live in, family size and an income level to see what’s available.