Do voters really want government health insurance? 

The headline on this morning’s Washington Post lead story, “Public Option Gains Support,” and the subhead, “CLEAR MAJORITY NOW BACKS PLAN,” would lead you to think that the answer to the above question is yes—and that the public has been moving in that direction. Like my Examiner colleagues Byron York and Chris Stirewalt, I think that’s misleading.

When you look at the actual question wording and numbers in the ABC/Post poll, you find that the percentage supporting and opposing “the proposed changes in the health care system by (Congress) and (the Obama administration)—no, I don’t know what the parentheses mean either—was 48%-48% in the ABC/Post’s mid-October poll, 46%-48% in its mid-September poll and 45%-50% in its mid-August poll.

In other words, there’s been no statistically significant change over the last two months.  Similarly, Barack Obama’s job approval and disapprorval on health care was 48%-48% in mid-October and exactly the same in mid-September.

So what’s the headline referring to? Two questions, I think. One is whether respondents favor or oppose having “the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans?” The numbers were 57%-40% in October, 55%-42% in September and 52%-46% in August. That looks like a mild upward trend. But it’s significantly lower than the response in June, when voters had had much less time to ponder the issue: 62%-33%.

The other question is one that ABC and the Post have not asked before, whether respondents favor a bill providing government-sponsored health insurance for people who can’t get affordable private health insurance which doesn’t have Republican support or a bill without such a provision which does have Republican support. The responses: 51% favor the first option, 37% the second.
 
But note that the poll shows only 19% having a great deal or a good amount of confidence in Republicans in Congress making good decisions. Putting a Republican label on any proposal would tend to reduce support for it, particularly when you haven’t put a Democratic label on the alternative.

he surprise here is that about twice as many respondents who have confidence in Republicans in Congress would still prefer a Republican-supported bill to one with a private option. Since the question wasn’t asked before, we can’t get any sense of the trend of opinion.
 
I think the most meaningful question in any of these polls is the first one I discussed, whether people favor or oppose the legislation being considered in Congress. We can’t expect ordinary citizens to have detailed knowledge of particular provisions, nor should we expect meaningful results when we ask them to pretend they’re Harry Reid and decide whether to go for a public option or for an alternative acceptable to Republicans.

The overall trend of opinion on the Democratic health care proposals is clear from this graph in pollster.com. If anything, support is falling; it certainly isn’t growing.
 

 

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Michael Barone

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