How Policy Threat Influences Feedback Effects: The Public Backlash to Republican Efforts to Repeal Health Reform

Did the threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by President Trump and Congressional Republicans after the 2016 elections undermine the general public’s support for health reform and mobilize Republicans voters to favor the law’s termination? That was the Republican intent; the actual effects speak to a fundamental question in the study of policy feedback – namely, the influence of political developments and, specifically, policy threat on individuals.

With my collaborators Suzanne Mettler and Ling Zhu, I have used the ACA to examine the effects of policy threat on public attitudes and political behavior. We analyze a panel of Americans, interviewed in five waves every other year from 2010 to 2018. We consider the overall feedback effects of policy threat on political attitudes and political behavior as well as the effects that emanate from its interaction with individuals’ partisanship, policy experiences, and income. Our findings indicate that the Republican threat spurred greater support for the law and increased the importance of health care in candidate selection. The impact of threat, though, varied in surprising ways, elevating favorability among both Republicans and those who had not themselves experienced greater access to health care as a result of its provisions, as well as among low-income people. The repeal threat also affected political behavior in ways not intended by its GOP supporters: it mobilized Democrats to vote based on health care and muted such behavior among Republicans. These results suggest that policy threat introduces important contingencies in policy feedback, heightening its effects for certain populations while depressing it for others, and in some cases mitigating partisan polarization.