Health care polls leave pols dizzy

By Andie Coller
|  Monday, Sep 28, 2009  |  Updated 4:00 AM CDT
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Health Care Polls Leave Pols Dizzy

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You could forgive a typical poll-driven pol for being driven around the bend by health reform.

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You could forgive a typical poll-driven pol for being driven around the bend by health reform.

Legislators hoping to learn what their constituents think about the issue — and how to vote to keep them happy — face a dizzying deluge of hard-to-reconcile data, some of which suggests that voters are more than a little confused, as well.

What to make of it, for example, when one poll finds that 63 percent think “death panels” are a “distortion” or “scare tactic,” and only 30 percent think the issue is “legitimate,” while another finds that 41 percent believe that people would die because “government panels” would prevent them from getting the treatment they needed?

Or when one survey finds that 55 percent of Americans support the public option, while another says 79 percent favor one — but also notes that only 37 percent people surveyed actually knew what “public option” meant?

And how to know whether to take any of it seriously when yet another poll finds that 8 percent of likely New Jersey voters say they think President Barack Obama is the Antichrist — and another 13 percent are “not sure”?

Junk polls, some of which offer people cash or prizes to participate in Internet surveys, are part of the problem, as are polls that are conducted on behalf of interest groups seeking to push favorable data into the debate, experts say.

But even without those, there are still plenty of head-scratchers in the mix.

Indeed, public opinion on health care reform sounds a lot like the views of Fannee Doolee, the character from the children’s TV show “ZOOM,” who liked sweets but didn’t like candy; liked bees, but didn’t like bugs. Americans, the polls suggest, like Medicare but not government-run health care; they like choices but aren’t sure they want another option. Finding the common thread is, to say the least, a challenge.

“It reflects a lot of uncertainty on the part of the public,” says Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “It’s hard for voters to figure out what’s going on, because members of Congress haven’t resolved the key issues. And so this creates problems for the pollsters, in the sense that you can get very different results depending on how you ask the question.”

“It’s the epitome of hypotheticals. Or maybe I should say the tyranny of hypotheticals,” he adds.

The surveys are seemingly so sensitive that sometimes one word can spark charges of bias.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office recently griped about an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that asked whether Americans favor a public option that would compete with private insurance companies, rather than asking how important they felt it was to have the “choice” between a public option and private insurance, as they had before.

The wording tweak left the impression that support for the public option had dropped from 76 percent to 43 percent since June, critics argued. 

Others have complained about a New York Times/CBS News poll that used a word with positive associations — “Medicare” — to describe the public option.

And an ABC News summary of the results of eight polls from late July through mid-August on “the public option” found that support for a public option ranged from 43 percent to 66 percent.

 

Republican pollster Whit Ayres notes that issues like health care are particularly susceptible to variation. “This health care debate is exactly the kind of issue on which public opinion is unstable and moves with additional information,” he says. “It is a highly complex issue with lots of moving parts, that even people who are paying close attention to the debate have difficulty fully understanding.”

ABC News pollster Gary Langer believes that “the contradiction is really not a failure of the public to make sense but a failure of the analyst to make sense of the information he or she has collected.”

And indeed, the true value of these polls may lie in the spaces between those who think something is “very likely” and those who are merely “somewhat concerned” about it, or those who approve of a “government plan” but not a “government-run plan.” Public opinion in this case is like a three-dimensional object — the more angles you see it from, the better you understand it.

“It’s really public opinions plural,” agrees Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal. “And they’re all being drawn on.”

“My philosophy about this is that we’re better off seeing multiple polls asking about something many different ways, laying them end to end,” he adds.

Still, the amount of misinformation — and plain old confusion — among voters raises the question of whether legislators should be crediting polls at all.

“I think it’s hard for voters to grasp the issues, because there’s been such polarized discussions on health care,” says West. “It’s hard for them to figure out what the facts are, let alone what the future impacts would be.”

One outfit that has raised the issue is Public Policy Polling, the Democratic pollster that asked whether respondents thought Obama was the Antichrist. When they asked in another survey whether the government should “stay out of Medicare” — an impossibility — 39 percent said yes.

“We asked the Medicare question to sort of get out there how much misunderstanding there is out there about the health care debate,” explains PPP Communications Director Tom Jensen.

The results, however, are debatable — respondents might have said they wanted the government to “stay out of Medicare” because they don’t want anyone to change the program — not because they don’t know who runs it, for example. And as for the Antichrist question, Jensen notes that they should have asked the same question about former President George W. Bush for comparison. They plan to remedy the error this week.

“Some would argue that we really shouldn’t even be looking at public opinion, because it’s not informed,” acknowledges Blumenthal. “But like it or not, we live in a democracy, and people get to vote every two years.”

Which means public opinion — however it is derived — matters. So legislators hoping for clear-cut answers are probably out of luck — and should accept their fate, say several pollsters.

“Politicians need to understand that voters are very comfortable having mutually contradictory views,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

Unlike an election, there is no deadline for voters to make a decision about health care reform — and some never will. “I think public opinion is getting pretty close to being as well-developed as its going to be right now,” says Blumenthal.

Adds Langer: “We want to boil the world down into a simple convenient number, when life is a little more complicated than that.”

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