The Supreme Court's decision to leave President Obama's health care reform legislation mostly intact swings the conversation back toward the presidential race, where Obama can claim an undisputed victory that will energize his supporters. But Romney may also benefit, because the ruling could galvanize two powerful, overlapping groups in the GOP base: members of the Tea Party and white non-Hispanic evangelical Protestants. In the reactions to the ruling, the powerful way that racial identity shapes attitudes toward the health care law, as well as how this may influence the law's impact in the pesidential race, has been largely overlooked. Comparisons between these key supporters of Romney, which are overwhelmingly white, and black Americans, who overwhelmingly support Obama, paint a stark picture of a racially divided America on this issue.
Just days before the Supreme Court's decision on the health care reform law was handed down, Public Religion Research Institute's June Religion & Politics Tracking Survey found that the public as a whole is fairly divided about the law: a plurality (43 percent) of Americans said that they opposed the Supreme Court overturning the health care law, 35 percent said they were in favor, and around 1-in-5 (21 percent) offered no opinion. But seen through the lens of race, there are two polarized consensuses.
The Tea Party, a group that was born in large part from resistance to health care reform, is largely composed of white Christians, and strongly opposes the health care law. More than 7-in-10 (71 percent) Tea Party members favor the Supreme Court overturning the health care law, with 57 percent saying they strongly favor this action. (White Americans overall are nearly evenly divided, with 41 percent in favor of the Supreme Court overturning the health care law and 40 percent opposed.) In contrast, 6-in-10 black Americans (63 percent) and minority Christians (60 percent) oppose overturning the health care law.
These divisions can also be seen in opinions about the outcomes of the law. Americans, overall, are divided on the ultimate effects of the health care reform law. A plurality (37 percent) of Americans say that the health care reform law will lead to more people having health insurance, while only 24 percent say it will lead to fewer people with insurance, and 34 percent say it will make no difference.
But these divisions in the general population about the impact of the law on accessibility of health care are also highly polarized by race. For example, there are huge divides between the Tea Party and white evangelical Protestants on the one hand, and African Americans on the other. Only about 1-in-5 (21 percent) white evangelical Protestants and 35 percent of the Tea Party say that the health care reform law will lead to more people with health insurance. By contrast, a strong majority of black Americans (58 percent) and black Protestants (65 percent) say that the legislation will result in higher numbers of insured Americans.
One thing is plain: Americans' perspectives on health care reform are not driven merely by political differences. This is unsurprising, given the differential rates of access to health insurance that run along racial lines. According to the 2010 Census, 31 percent of Hispanic Americans and 21 percent of black Americans were uninsured, compared to only 12 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans.
So while the law's success in the nation's high court could provide extra impetus for black Americans -- already some of Obama's strongest supporters -- to vote and volunteer for Obama's campaign, it could also provide the catalyst for the resurgence of the Tea Party, a group dominated by white Christians, to move beyond some of their political and religious reservations about Romney and become a more potent force this election season.
Follow Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/publicreligion