Who Has to Make Concessions to Who?

I have a love/hate relationship with posts about polls. It's nice to have factual data to work with, but it always feels a little lazy. After all, polling measures public opinion, so to a certain extent, it's kind of like informing people of things they already know. Still, polling has become so central to our news culture that it's almost impossible to avoid. Sooner or later, polling is going to be a story worth talking about.

One poll that's getting some comment around the net is a Quinnipiac University poll on just about everything.

American voters oppose 47 - 40 percent President Barack Obama's health care reform plan, and don't want an overhaul that only gets Democratic votes, but they support key parts of the plan, including 61 - 34 percent for giving people the option of a government health insurance plan that competes with private plans, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today.

By a 57 - 37 percent margin, voters say Congress should not approve a health care overhaul with only Democratic votes. Democrats are OK with a one-party bill 63 - 29 percent, but opposition is 88 - 9 percent from Republicans and 62 - 32 percent from independent voters.

President Obama's job approval is 50 - 41 percent, virtually unchanged from his 50 - 42 percent rating August 6, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University survey of 2,630 American voters finds. The President's 41 - 51 percent negative rating on health care is barely changed from his 39 - 52 percent rating August 5. His 47 - 46 percent score on handling the economy is slightly better than a 45 - 49 percent negative in August.

Like I said, factual data. That X% of respondents answered a question a certain way is undoubtedly factual, but it pays to take a look at what the question actually was.

For example, the question about a "Democrat-only" bill. The question was "Do you agree or disagree with the following: Congress should approve a health care overhaul plan even if only Democrats support it?" As the blockquote above points out, only 37% agreed, while 57% disagreed.

The question seems pretty straightforward, but it leaves out consequence. When Research 2000 asked a similar question, they put it this way:

Which of the following scenarios do you prefer/ do you prefer?

Getting a health care bill with the choice of a strong public health insurance option to compete with private insurance plans that's supported only by Democrats in Congress, OR Getting a health care bill with no public option that has the support of Democrats and a handful of Republicans?

Asked that way, the results were bass-ackward from Quinnipiac's numbers -- 52% thought it was more important to have a "strong public option," while only 39% thought it was more important to have a bipartisan bill for the sake of bipartisanship.

"Again and again, the major polling firms have in effect framed the question this way: Which do you like better, partisanship or bipartisanship? Not surprisingly, the public keeps saying they want a bipartisan solution," writes Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent. "What the pollsters refuse to do, though, is ask voters whether they want a bipartisan bill if getting GOP support results in actual policy consequences they don't like."

And this assessment is backed up by the results from other Quinnipiac questions; 61% want a public option and 73% want employers to help pay for the healthcare of their employees -- both opposed by congressional Republicans. In addition, only 31% trust the GOP to do a better job on healthcare than the president and a measly 29% believe the party's "making a good faith effort to cooperate with Obama and the Democrats on health care reform." Quinnipiac's question might as well begin, "In a perfect world..."

And there's always, at least in the media, the assumption that it's the president and the Democrats who need to make concessions to reach a bipartisan result. But that question is never asked. The numbers seem to suggest that the opposite is true, that people believe Republicans need to make the effort. Until someone bothers to ask, however, we can't possibly say for sure. Still, all the news stories about possible bipartisanship work from the assumption that Democrats have to make concessions to Republicans, not vice versa. This despite the fact that no poll shows the GOP ahead when it comes to trust on the issue. What would this bipartisan bill that people like so much look like? Probably not very Republican.

In all, Republicans don't do very well in this poll at all. Over at Political Wire, Taegan Goddard finds the bad news for the GOP. I've already covered some of these, but they bear repeating:

-Voters disapprove 64% to 25% of the way Republicans in Congress are doing their job, with even 42% of Republican voters disapproving

-Only 29% think Republicans on Capitol Hill are acting in good faith

-Voters trust Obama more than Republicans 47% to 31% to handle health care

-By a 53% to 25% margin, voters have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party

And we're supposed to believe that Democrats have to change their plans to make Republicans happy? Yeah, I don't think so. As I said, polling is factual data; when asked a question a certain percentage gave a certain answer. But whether that data is useful depends on the questions. In the end, Quinnipiac's poll answers a lot of questions, but it also raises new ones.


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