I committed political journalism in Washington, D.C., for 30 years before moving to Chicago exactly a year ago. So you might think I would be champing at the bit to set aside my budding second career as a food and lifestyle writer for a day, and add my .02 to the torrent of instant analysis about how today's Supreme Court ruling upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act -- a.k.a. ObamaCare -- will affect the elections in November.
If you do think that, you're wrong. Not because I'm not still interested in politics, because I am, and not because I don't have my own opinions, which I do. The reason is this: All those years of covering elections taught me that immediate predictions of how a news event will affect voters' decisions, in an election that will be held months later, is usually a waste of time.
I say that with respect for many fine professionals, whose predictions are based on their extensive knowledge of political tendencies and trends. My specialty for many years at Congressional Quarterly (CQ) was covering and forecasting the outcomes of individual races for the U.S. Senate and House, which gave me the luxury of determining how news events were playing in dozen of states and districts and putting them into a broader perspective. But during my last years in D.C., a change in management and the demands of the ultra-competitive 24/7, Web-driven news market required me, like it or not, to engage in my share of instant analysis as well.
The problem with making snap conclusions is that they are, essentially, guesses. It usually takes some time, maybe days, maybe weeks, maybe longer, for the real electoral impact of news events -- even big effin' deals like health care, to steal a line from Vice President Joe Biden -- to take its definitive form.
In the immediate aftermath of an event, we just don't have the public opinion data we need to have a solid sense of how the voting public reacted. Nor do we know which party's public relations "spin" will be more effective (and whether it changes any voters' original opinion), and whether the issue actually will remain a hot button through Election Day or slowly fade from the public's consciousness.
While not discounting the importance of the health care issue, it is not and will not be as big as the condition of the nation's economy in determining who wins the contests for president and control of Congress in November. And health care could possibly be superceded as a political priority by developments that no one today could predict.
A couple of examples are in order. Remember all the way back in early spring -- that would be about three months ago -- how a sudden jump in gasoline prices was going to change the dynamics of the entire election campaign? The weekly national average for a gallon of regular gasoline hit $3.88 in early April; economic, um, experts were predicting the price would soar to more than $5 a gallon during the summer vacation travel season; Republicans were pounding President Obama, accusing him of lacking leadership on energy supply issues; and polls showed about 65 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of gas prices.
Except... instead of going up and up and up, gas prices began to steadily decline by the middle of April. The average price of a gallon of regular gas slipped all the way back to $3.38 a gallon in figures reported by the U.S. Energy Department early this week, the lowest since the end of January. You don't hear much now about gas prices being a top priority issue this fall.
Perhaps my favorite bragging right from my time in Washington came in 1998, which happened to be the first of my 11 years as CQ's politics editor. In August of that year, President Bill Clinton went on national TV and confessed that he had been lying to his family and the American public for months about whether he'd had a sexual relationship with an intern named Monica Lewinsky. A powerful conventional wisdom arose immediately that this would be devastating to his party in that year's midterm congressional elections, with Democratic losses amounting to possibly dozens of seats.
But our politics team reserved judgment and found, talking with people around the country, that voters in key races were focusing more on traditional "kitchen-table" issues such as the economy and jobs and health care, and were actually getting angry at the Republicans for making such a big deal out of the Clinton sex scandal. A couple of weeks out from the election, when most prognosticators were still expecting big losses for the Democrats, we published our determination that the party actually was going to make a net gain of a handful of seats. And we were right.
So, here's how I'm going to make my own determination about how I think the health care ruling is going to play in the November elections.
1) I'm going to look at the first round of polls over the next week or so that will include public reaction to the ruling and to the upcoming vote by the Republican-controlled House to totally repeal the health care law (a purely symbolic move, as any such measure would be snuffed in the Democratic-controlled Senate).
2) I will look at whether the national unemployment number for June, due to be released on July 6 at the end of next week, is down, up or stays the same. (It was 8.2 percent in May.)
3) Wait for the next round of polls that will reflect public reaction to the unemployment news and give the first indication of how much lasting resonance the health care ruling is going to have.
Then I'll weigh in. The degree to which readers still care at that point will in itself be an indication of how "game-changing" today's Supreme Court decision really will be.