Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The "Public Option" (8/11)

Perhaps the most contentious issue among congressional negotiators and interest groups in Washington, DC (and elsewhere) is the so-called public option. The idea is that the government would create a new health-insurance program (modeled to one degree or another on Medicare, the government insurance program for seniors) that people could join. Proponents argue that, by having it compete with private insurers, the public option would help control costs. Opponents, on the other hand, see the public option as yet another government intrusion into an area they feel should be left to the private market.

Where does the public seem to stand? Not surprisingly, the public option has been widely polled, and we shall focus exclusively on it today. As seen in the diagram below (which you can click on to enlarge), levels of support for the public option vary widely according to different polls, despite the relative consistency of question wording (all the survey items refer in some fashion to the public option being a government health-insurance program that would compete with private insurance companies). The predominant trend, I would say, is that a majority of respondents supports a public option, with five of the eight polls showing between 52-66 percent in favor.

Still, though, two other polls show support in the mid-40s and one poll (Rasmussen) has support way down at 35%. What to make of this? Let's start with Rasmussen. Whereas Rasmussen's presidential-election polling has tended to be highly accurate (relative to the actual results), other types of polls from this outfit appear to have had a Republican slant. Here are some examples:

*Whereas most polls tended to have George W. Bush's job-approval ratings during the waning months of his administration in the low-30s or even the 20s, Rasmussen consistently had it around 35%.

*Whereas virtually every pollster other than Rasmussen has shown a majority of voters to prefer the Democrats (at this early point) in next year's U.S. House elections, Rasmussen has been showing the Republicans in the lead (albeit with large percentages undecided).

Polling analysts refer to systematic differences in the results (on the same basic issue) between different survey firms (or survey "houses") as house effects. These may stem from different firms' practices regarding question-wording, sample weighting, etc. On health care reform and other issues, it looks to me as though Rasmussen has a substantial house effect.

There's one other aspect of the public-option polling I'd like to point out. As can be seen in the diagram above, I have highlighted in red the words "option" and "offering" in the wording of some of the survey items. It appears that wordings stressing the voluntariness of the public option (i.e., that it is an "option," or something "offered" to the consumer) tend to elicit higher support than wordings that don't highlight voluntariness as much. This is just a hunch. If anyone has other explanations for the large variation in support between the polls, please share them in the comments section.

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