Poll Patrol

In the health care debate, many Democrats are claiming that a "public option" has strong public support--but are they right?

In the past few months, pollsters have asked hundreds of questions about health care reform, poking and probing Americans about many aspects of the debate, including the public option. A quick review of a few new polls shows that support for that particular idea is shaky at best.

Most, but not all, polls show that people's initial reaction to a public option is positive. This is particularly true when pollsters tell people it would operate like the popular Medicare program or when the questions emphasize giving people options or choices, ideas Americans almost always respond to favorably. Americans also like competition, and many questions describe a public option as one that would "compete" with a government plan. Let's look at a few recent questions.

Democrats are on shaky ground when they claim a public option has strong support.

In a question asked in mid-August by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 59% said they favored creating "a government-administered public health insurance option similar to Medicare to compete with private health insurance plans." Support was at 59% in July and 67% in April. But when those who favored the plan in the July poll were asked in follow-up questions whether they would still favor it if they heard that it would give the government an unfair advantage over private insurance companies or if it would be the first step toward single- payer, government-run health care, support dropped 25 and 20 points, respectively. In that poll, people's answers were split evenly on whether a public option would drive private companies out of the health insurance business (43%) or cause them to become more efficient and provide better products (45%).

In a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal question that emphasized choice, 76% favored giving "people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance." But in July and August, they asked a different question that produced a much more tepid response, perhaps because they described the public plan as being "administered by the federal government." Americans don't seem to have much confidence in Washington these days. In July, 46% were in favor of creating a public plan administered by the federal government, and 44% were opposed. In August, those numbers flipped, with 43% in favor and 47% opposed. In follow-up questions in both polls, more people agreed with the statement that a public plan would limit access to doctors and treatment than agreed with the statement that it would lower costs and provide health care for all.

In Harris's July poll, 52% supported "the proposal now being discussed to set up a public or government-sponsored health plan somewhat like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans and sell health insurance to employers and individuals who chose it."

In a mid-August ABC news/Washington Post poll, 52% supported "having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans," down from 62% in June.

So what do these conflicting numbers tell us about the public's opinion on public option? In many areas, opinion is mushy, soft or non-existent, and how a pollster words a question and the information he provides can pull people in very different directions. Writing questions isn't easy, and most pollsters try hard to capture the public debate on complex issues. But they operate in a very competitive media and polling environment, and they bear some responsibility for pushing the survey instrument beyond where it can go and suggesting that the opinion expressed in their findings is firm. Democrats are on shaky ground when they claim a public option has strong support. It is soft at best.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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