How Big A Role Did Health Care Play in the 2020 Election?

By Krista Jenkins, PhD
November 6, 2020

As I write this, the 2020 election is, predictably, not quite behind us. Even though we don’t yet know for sure who will be occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next year, we do know a fair amount about what was on the minds of voters — including when it comes to health care — courtesy of the exit polls.

As with 2018, we now have two sources of information about voters’ Election Day attitudes. Edison Research provides data to a consortium of networks — including CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN — using a combination of live interviewers who intercept voters as they leave the polls and telephone interviews with absentee, early and mail voters. Then there’s relative newcomer AP VoteCast from NORC at the University of Chicago, which provides data to the Associated Press and Fox News using online and phone probability samples of registered voters to derive estimates of candidate preferences and important issues on Election Day.  

So what do these sources tell us about the role of health care in this election? Democrats campaigned hard on health care just as they did in 2018. But only 11% of all voters per Edison and 9% per VoteCast said health care was their most important issue, ranking it tied for fourth in Edison and third in VoteCast, far behind the economy (35% Edison, 28% VoteCast) and the pandemic (17% Edison, 41% VoteCast). Clearly, the inextricable connection between the economy and the pandemic outweighed the importance of Democratic messaging regarding health care access and threats to the Affordable Care Act.

Those who did identify health care policy as their most important issue broke for Biden by a ratio of about two-to-one in both polls. Similarly, those who said the pandemic was the most important issue also overwhelmingly supported Biden, and slight majorities in both polls disapproved of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. But voter perception of the government’s response to the pandemic perhaps predictably broke along partisan lines.

These are just a few snippets from the exit polls. This trove of data will be parsed, analyzed and discussed for weeks to come, and a more complete picture of how health care issues intersected with candidate preferences in this election will emerge. And, for this, we should be grateful and careful to recognize that despite the limitations facing pollsters these days and the difficulty of combining elements of both art and science in arriving at accurate pre-election estimates, polls provide invaluable insights into the American electorate.

Krista Jenkins is the director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll and a veteran pollster on policy and politics.

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