Free Markets, Free People

opinion polls

Is A “Public Option” Really Popular With The Public?

Although Obamacare is still pretty unfavorable to most Americans (and getting worse?), for some reason a nebulous “public option” continues to poll rather well. Jay Cost takes a look at the polling data and offers a reasonable suggestion for the disparity:

How can we reconcile these gloomy numbers with the sunny results on the public option?

It might be due to the public’s lack of information. I’m sure that the average polling respondent is paying some attention to the health care debate, but she is paying much less attention than political junkies. This will limit the amount of information she actually has in her mental filing cabinet. So, the crucial question is: even if she has absorbed some pro- and anti-reform arguments, does she have enough information to relate them to specific reform proposals? Color me skeptical on that one. I think your average respondent – even with some general opinions on reform – will have a hard time using those broad considerations to evaluate items like the individual mandate, guaranteed issue, community rating, and…wait for it!…the public option.

So, asking about specific proposals might be taking the conversation too far into the woods for the average respondent – and she is going to have a hard time recalling a relevant piece of information upon which to base a response. Instead, she might use the question itself as a basis for her answer. It follows that the information or perspective given in the question could make her more or less partial to the proposal under consideration.

I made a similar argument back in August when dissecting a report alleging that there is 80% support for the public option. Among other problems with supposed poll, it was not at all clear that respondents even new what was meant by “public option”:

If in fact the question was worded as described by Singer, then the inclusion of the phrase “if they can’t afford private plans offered to them” alters the results dramatically. Although some have suggested that this is the reason we need health care insurance reform so desperately, it completely ignores the fact that those who can’t afford health insurance are generally covered by Medicaid, SCHIP and other federal and state programs. So when respondents are asked whether such people should be covered, how do we know they aren’t thinking about those federal and state programs already in existence and not the public option as proposed by Obama and Congress? In short, we don’t. To be fair, the question allegedly refers to “starting a new” program, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people understood the question to be asking about ObamaCare’s public option.

Indeed, according to PSB, “only 37 percent define ‘public option’ correctly” and “about one-fourth of those polled believe the ‘public option’ is a national health care system, similar to the one in Great Britain.” Of course, how to “correctly” define the public option is not revealed, but suffice it to say that the survey’s respondents did not reveal they had a concise grasp upon what a public option actually means.

The fact is that most people have better things to do with their lives than become expert in the sausage-making going on in D.C. That they are rationally ignorant (and, thanks to the MSM, often completely misinformed) of the details regarding the public option should come as no surprise.

But Cost digs much deeper and finds that the wording of the survey questions makes a dramatic difference. He points out that most of the recent polling uses “feel-good-phraseology” that tends to diminish the concept of government control and assume the idea that the public option would “compete” with private insurers:

If the theory that question wording is playing a role is correct, then altering the wording should induce a change in the results. So, what happens when information less partial to the Democratic side is introduced? To start answering this question, let’s consider the Gallup results, which are decidedly less bullish on the public option:
USA Today Gallup Poll

Like ABC News/WaPo, Gallup uses the Democratic buzzword “compete.” However, Gallup also uses a Republican buzzword: “government-run.” This is opposed to the weaker formulation – “government administered” – offered by CBS News/New York Times and CNN. With this more balanced choice of words, Gallup finds a roughly even split. I would not call this definitive evidence, but it suggests that we might be on the right track.

More damning is the result of a Rasmussen poll where the wording is less “feel-good” and the public option question is followed up with this one:

Suppose that the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers. Workers would then be covered by the government option. Would you favor or oppose the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option if it encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers?

What happens when this Republican argument is substituted for the Democratic argument? Support for the public option plummets dramatically. Nearly 3/5ths of all respondents voiced opposition to the public option when it was phrased in this way.

Additionally, Rasmussen asked whether respondents thought the public option would save taxpayers money (they didn’t), whether they thought it would offer better health insurance than private insurance (again, no), and whether people preferred to have a public option or a guarantee that nobody will lose their current coverage (the guarantee won in a landslide).

As Cost admits, none of this means that people are necessarily against the public option, just that their opinions are highly influenced by the way questions are asked, stemming from the fact that they are relatively uninformed about the topic. However, Cost’s theory would explain why there is such incongruity between the public’s distaste for the ObamaCare plans floating around Congress and their seeming desire for a public option. Interestingly enough, it also explains why “Medicare for all” is the new rallying cry coming from Washington.