Did Mitt Romney Win the “Health Care” Issue in 2012?

Former U.S. Rep. Artur Davis speaks during the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Probably the best address at this weekend’s National Review Institute summit (full write-up being published soon) came from former Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat and early Obama backer who has become a visible, busy black conservative. (He was an under-appreciated surrogate for Romney). Davis warned conservatives that they have gotten terrific at talking amongst themselves, but weaker at bringing in new converts. And the field was set for them.

“When the American people were asked who would do a better job on the number one issue, the economy, they said Romney. When they were asked who would do a better job on the number two issue, spending, they said Romney. When they were asked who would do a better job on the number three issue? You see the pattern. Romney.”

One National Review writer sitting next to me muttered, “Unbelievable.” Was there any better proof that the party was winning on points but losing on messaging? Yes, because the way Davis got to that third data point suggests that the GOP is somewhat lost on health care. In the 2012 exit poll, asked about the “most important issue facing the country,” 59 percent of voters said the economy, 18 percent said health care, and 15 percent said the deficit. Romney won “economy” voters 51-49, and won “deficit” voters 66-32. But Obama slaughtered Romney with “health care” voters, 75-24.

“I was thinking of the exit poll data that a majority favored the repeal of the Affordable Care Act,” Davis tells me. “Perhaps not the same as a direct approval question on health care, but also a perfectly fair thread for the point that the electorate agreed with Republicans on much of what was litigated last cycle, but didn’t trust the party to be reponsive to middle-class or working-class interests.”

Sure enough, more voters supported repeal of the Affordable Care Act (49 percent) than wanted to keep it (44 percent). In breakdowns, only 25 percent wanted full repeal, but 24 percent wanted partial repeal. That ended up being Romney’s promise. The Republican advantage on health care is theoretical, and wasn’t fully in play in 2012.

Republicans know this. As I’ve been naggingly reporting, there’s basically no momentum for full Obamacare repeal right now. In a little-noticed part of his NRI speech, Paul Ryan said that Obamacare had stopped being a bill and started being “12,000 pages of regulations.” Message: Stop promising to repeal, start chipping away. Be specific. “If you can’t afford health insurance,” said New York Times columnist Ross Douthat at the conference, “Mitt Romney had nothing to say to you.”