Thursday, February 25, 2010

Relying too much on polls

So I was watching the Obama health care summit today on and off.  It was pretty fascinating to hear Republican members of Congress persistently repeating their claim that the administration's current health reform plan is unpopular, and therefore it should be scrapped and we should start the whole thing over.  One could call this hypocritical -- these same GOPers regularly criticize other politicians for following polls.  But it's hardly unusual for a politician to rely on polls when they support her position and to brag about her bravery when the polls oppose her position.

Nonetheless, the reliance on polls has been particularly misleading during this whole debate on health care. First of all, as Ezra Klein notes, Americans oppose health reform until they learn what's in it.  Basically, the public opposes it in general but supports every component of it.  Also, the polls reflect aspects of the political debate right now but can't really say how people will feel about health reform five or ten or fifty years from now.  As I suggested the other day, expansions of the social safety net usually start off controversial but then gain near-universal approval over time.  It's also reasonable to question the GOP's sincerity on this.  That is, it's not that they want Obama to work on more popular legislation.  They want to kill this legislation because that will benefit them in the midterm election.  Saying we should start over is another way of requesting a delay until the elections, or forever.

But the main problem here is that this just isn't a great subject for measuring public opinion.  Health reform is tremendously complex and the media don't do a great job reporting on it substantively.  Opinion polls on the subject are highly sensitive to issues of question wording and ordering.  If you want to know whether people approve of the job Obama is doing or for whom they intend to vote in the next election, polls are pretty reliable.  But for this subject, it's just not terribly revealing.

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