Polling And The Public Option
Partisans wield polls as swords to cut their opposition. I've certainly done it on occasion. We should all probably be more careful, especially when polling concepts that have not penetrated the public consciousness. This lesson from Nate Silver may be a good example.
A new survey by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates for the AARP reveals widespread uncertainty about the nature of the "public option" -- a government-run health insurance policy that would be offered along with private policies in the newly-created health insurance exchanges. Just 37 percent of the poll's respondents correctly identified the public option from a list of three choices provided to them:
It is tempting to attribute these results to attempts by conservatives to blur the distinctions of the health care debate. And surely that is part of the story. But it may not be all that much of it. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to correctly identify the public option in this poll, but not by all that wide a margin -- 41 percent versus 34 percent. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Republicans thought the public option refers to "creating a national healthcare system like they have in Great Britain" -- but so did 23 percent of Democrats.
This should serve as something of a reality check for people on both sides of the public option debate. If the respondents had simply chosen randomly among the three options provide to them, 33 percent would have selected the correct definition for the public option. Instead, only 37 percent did (although 23 percent did not bother to guess). This is mostly a debate being had among policy elites and the relatively small fraction of the public that is highly knowledgeable and engaged about health care reform; for most others, the details are lost on them.
Later on, Silver casually mentions that this was part of an Internet poll, so I don't know how religiously we should take its data, even as it seems to debunk some of the data we take with respect to the public option. What's clear, and Silver makes this point further down, is that among those clear on the debate, the public option still receives something like 60% support, though changes in wording can cause wild swings up or down. We shouldn't use the most outsized numbers of support (in the 80% range) or the ones with the least (around 35%).
It wouldn't hurt to have clear signals from the Democratic leadership on what the public option would do.