Republicans who rode anti-Obamacare sentiment to majorities in Congress are relying on voters like Florida trucker Edwardo Arenas to help them win back the White House and undo President Obama’s legacy item once he’s gone.
Mr. Arenas said the health overhaul’s “employer mandate” requiring large employers to provide coverage or pay hefty fines is slashing jobs in the fast-food industry and other sectors. It’s one of the reasons he cast his vote for Donald Trump during early voting in Orlando.
“Because of Obamacare, with the mandate, you can’t find full-time employment in those jobs,” said Mr. Arenas, 50, who was worried about his children. “It hurts young people.”
Six years after passage, Obamacare is still cropping up on the campaign trail, as Mr. Obama turns to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to build on his signature achievement in lieu of Mr. Trump, who’s vowed to tear it down.
Yet Mr. Arenas appears to be an outlier in this cycle, as the 2016 campaign pivots on immigration, trade deals and the candidates themselves.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found voters were far less likely to cite health care as the most important issue in their vote for president — just 9 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans — than issues such as the economy, foreign policy and social issues.
It’s a turnaround from 2010, when the House GOP used backlash to the Affordable Care Act to seize a sizable majority, and from 2014, when Republicans pointed to the law’s wobbly implementation to retake the Senate.
“I would say that health care is definitely a second-tier issue this round,” said Mollyann Brodie, a senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
“People’s views of Obamacare were set in stone when the law passed, and they never changed. There hasn’t been movement on that,” Ms. Brodie said. “I think for someone who’s trying to win an election now, there’s other issues to tap into that would be more motivating for the base.”
Indeed, Obamacare lingered in the background until late October, when the administration confirmed that many consumers who purchase insurance on their own would see double-digit premium increases in 2017.
Mr. Trump is using the news to rustle up votes in key swing states. A down-ballot candidate like Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, frequently reminds voters that his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, voted for the law in 2010, as Arizonans see their premiums spike by an average of 116 percent.
“There’s no doubt it’s an issue that motivates the Republican base,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a conservative pressure group.
GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said the law’s political reach won’t be clear until the exit polls come in on Election Day, though any “Obamacare voters” will likely come out of states like Arizona or North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Richard Burr is fighting to protect his seat against former state lawmaker Deborah Ross.
“How and why voters pull the lever for a general election presidential candidate is usually more complex than a single item like Obamacare,” Mr. O’Connell said. “That said, where the Obamacare voter might be most pronounced is in some of these key Senate races that also double as presidential battleground races.”
A voter who isn’t keen on Mr. Trump, he said, might vote for a GOP Senate candidate to make sure Mrs. Clinton, if she wins, cannot expand on Obamacare with a government-run plan, or “public option,” in the exchanges.
Democrats are banking on voters like Jesus Rojas, a 50-year-old who attended a Clinton rally at a park in Tampa, Florida, to counteract them.
“She’s going to improve the legacy of Mr. Obama and improve Obamacare,” said Mr. Rojas, a maintenance supervisor at an apartment complex.
“It’s not perfect,” he said of the health law. “They knew it wasn’t going to be perfect.”
Many Democrats say voters validated Mr. Obama’s vision by re-electing him in 2012, and it is time to fix what ails it instead of undoing its progress in driving the uninsured rate to historic lows.
There are also millions of newly insured people who will have their say at the ballot box in 2016.
Mr. Holler said many of them will be put off by rising premiums or lackluster Medicaid coverage, though the law’s proponents say many are gaining “peace of mind” from their coverage, and that government subsidies absorb the sting of rate hikes.
“I think, unfortunately, we’re seeing headlines that only show half of the story,” said Elizabeth Hagan, a senior policy analyst for Families USA.
Yet Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, said some voters might not associate Obamacare with its most popular benefits, such as free preventive health services and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26.
“A lot of Americans have benefited in ways they probably don’t even realize,” Mr. Jost said, while “everything that goes wrong in the market is attributed to the ACA.”