Bold Headline, Questionable Substance: Understanding That Washington Post Poll

October 20, 2009
2:22 pm

Advocates of a government-run health insurance plan are calling today’s published Washington Post/ABC News poll a game-changer, placing the impetus on Congress to give the public what it ostensibly wants.  According to the poll, 57 percent say they want a government-run plan while 40 percent oppose the idea.

But is the Post poll everything government plan supporters make it out to be?  Taking a closer look, some flaws and quirks in the survey become apparent.

•      In June, a Post poll showed even greater support for the government option – 62 percent – but when a subsequent question asked respondents if they would still support the concept even if it would reduce private sector coverage choices because of unfair competition, support for the government plan plummeted to 37 percent.  Even though the slanted playing field issue is still a valid concern, the Post didn’t ask the follow-up question this time around.  One has to wonder why.

•      In conducting the survey, the Post assembled a respondent sampling made up of 33 percent Democrats and 20 percent Republicans or, in other words, 65 percent more Democrats than Republicans.  The most recent Gallup survey showed a significant narrowing of the gap between identified Democrats and Republicans throughout the country – 35 percent Democrats to 27 percent Republicans, or roughly a 30 percent difference.  The Post poll shows a substantive partisan tilt that doesn’t reflect the country’s actual political makeup.

•      To put these survey numbers in perspective, it’s worth keeping in mind that more than four of every 10 Americans aren’t following the health reform debate closely.  A survey by the Pew Research Center this month found that 44 percent of the country could not identify the phrase “public option” with the health reform debate.

Will these new poll numbers affect the dynamics of the congressional debate on the government option?  It shouldn’t.  Even if that dubious 57 percent support figure were legitimate, logic and elementary statistics would tell us that support figures are disproportionately high in urban strongholds on the east and west coasts whose members of Congress already predominantly support the government plan concept.  Logically, that would mean support would be significantly lower – likely below 50 percent – in Senator Mary Landrieu’s Louisiana, Senator Ben Nelson’s Nebraska, Senator Blanche Lincoln’s Arkansas and other states and regions that have a more centrist political outlook.

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