Ruling's Impact is Not Through the Election

Jul 5, 2012, 3:00 PM, Posted by

This post is part of a series in which Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, grantees and alumni offer perspectives on the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the Affordable Care Act. Hans Noel, PhD, is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University and an alumnus of the RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research program.

In the last few weeks, I've been asked by a variety of audiences some version of the question, how will the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act affect the 2012 presidential election?

You might think this would be a hard question to answer, since at the time I couldn't have guessed that the Court would uphold the act in a 5 to 4 decision, written by Justice Roberts. But my answer has not changed. How will the ruling affect the presidential election?

It won't.

But that's not stopping anyone from speculating. Even before the ruling, soothsayers were prognosticating. I think I've heard every variation on following Mad Lib: if the Supreme Court rules up/down/a mix, then liberals/conservatives will be emboldened/demoralized/satiated, and so will be a larger/smaller force in the 2012 election.

(Notable exceptions from the always reasonable Jonathan Bernstein, and saner folks at The Monkey Cage and Mischiefs of Faction).

While I am sure there are some activists for whom the Affordable Care Act is the most important thing, and there may even be some whose passion changes, the effects will be trivial. Most partisans will vote, as partisans tend to do. And they will vote for the party they are loyal to, as partisans tend to do. What will swing the election will be bigger things than this, notably the state of the economy.

It is also probably true that the ruling—however it had come out—will shape the details of the debate between Romney and Obama. But only the details. The fight over health care is far from over, and the ruling does not take the issue off the agenda. Nor does it elevate it. So what they could say did not change last week.

But the fact that I was asked this question so much is interesting, especially in light of the claim that political scientists are so lousy at forecasting, which lit up the blogosphere a while back. The takeaway from that discussion was (1) political science is not about prediction and (2) political scientists are at worst no better but also no worse than other supposed experts. And yet we still get asked. Even when the answer is often, no, that thing you are so interested in probably does not matter.

Hans Noel is an assistant professor of Government at Georgetown University. He blogs regularly at

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.