At the beginning of the week, healthcare reformers got a jolt of bad (or, at least, "baddish") news in the form of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that showed that 47% of respondents opposed the government-run public option, while 43% supported it. I pointed out that, considering the margin of error, this was a statistical near-tie -- which I took to mean the public was split on the idea. I also took comfort in the fact that neither side of the argument took the majority, so undecideds were still in play and could make the difference.
But then we started getting numbers that suggested the NBC/WSJ poll was screwy. For example, a poll by the reliably right-leaning Rasmussen:
Just 34% of voters nationwide support the health care reform plan proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats if the so-called “public option” is removed. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 57% oppose the plan if it doesn’t include a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private insurers.
Then Nat Silver found an interesting nugget in the NBC/WSJ polling data:
Also, while just 36 percent believe Obama’s efforts to reform the health system are a good idea, that number increases to 53 percent when respondents were read a paragraph describing Obama’s plans.
OK, that's screwy. People have a screwed up idea of what the president's plans actually are. Not extremely surprising, since the right has made a cottage industry of misinforming the public with worries about death panels, seniors being kicked off Medicare, a "government takeover," and millions losing their coverage. The media, for the most part, treat these claims as if they had any basis in fact, as if lies and truth are simply a difference of opinion. As a result, "unbiased" reporting leaves people with the impression that Republican claims have some validity. If you say "President Obama's and the Democrats' reforms," you'll get one response -- based on all the misinformation and crap there is out there about them. But if you list what those reforms actually are, you get an entirely different -- i.e., more positive -- response.
But that's not the only problem with the NBC/WSJ poll numbers. Another poll on the public option came out yesterday, showing 77% support for the public option. This is more in tune with earlier polling on the issue and makes the Rasmussen numbers a lot less out of whack. The difference between this poll and the NBC/WSJ poll is a single word.
[Sam Stein, Huffington Post:]
A new study by SurveyUSA puts support for a public option at a robust 77 percent, one percentage point higher than where it stood in June.
But the numbers tell another story, as well.
Earlier in the week, after pollsters for NBC [PDF] dropped the word "choice" from their question on a public option, they found that only 43 percent of the public were in favor of "creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies."
The NBC poll questioning made it seem as if you wouldn't have any choice but to accept a government plan. "In asking its question SurveyUSA used the same exact words that NBC/Wall Street Journal had used when conducting its June 2009 survey [PDF]. That one that found 76 percent approval for the public option..."
"In any health care proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance--extremely important, quite important, not that important, or not at all important?" SurveyUSA asked. Obviously, 77% said it was either "extremely" or "quite" important.
Of course, the SurveyUSA poll was taken for the pro-reform MoveOn.org, so a lot of the punditry and all of the anti-reformers will dismiss it out of hand. But SurveyUSA is not MoveOn.org and all a pollster has to sell is their accuracy; pollsters who find the results their clients want tend to lose business, because everything they put out is automatically suspect. "Everyone knows that _____'s numbers are always crap" isn't the best slogan for a business. Most of the time, organizations take polls on the issues they support and decide whether to release it afterwards; good numbers are public polling, bad numbers are "internal" polling.
In any case, other polling (including their own) now shows that the NBC/WSJ numbers are the outlier here. And even in that screwed up polling, we saw good support for the public option and better support when they knew what the public option actually is. The results are clear -- Americans want a public option.
So why is it such a big controversy in the media?
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