A new poll was released today, purporting to show that voters in swing congressional districts are heavily opposed to the health care reform legislation working its way toward a final vote in the U.S. House. The poll was sponsored by the conservative-leaning Independent Women's Forum, with surveying by conservative Kellyanne Conway's Polling Company. To get a flavor of positions taken by IWF, one of its directors recently delivered a presentation entitled "Saving Freedom From ObamaCare." Not surprisingly, the IWF poll was picked up by Doug Schoen, an increasingly vocal opponent of the present health care reform efforts.
A poll's association with an explicitly political group -- at either end of the spectrum -- does not automatically vitiate the poll. However, pollsters sometimes show "house effects" in the direction of the pollster's or sponsoring organization's partisan-ideological bent (e.g., Rasmussen's polls, cited often on FOX News and in other conservative circles, tend to have a pro-Republican house effect, whereas Research 2000, which conducts polls for the left-leaning website Daily Kos, tends to have a pro-Democratic house effect). At the very least, readers should take the pollster and sponsoring organization into account when evaluating the results of a poll (for further discussion, see M.W. Traugott and P.J. Lavrakas, The Voter's Guide to Election Polls, 4th ed., 2008, p. 43, under the heading "Are There Problems with Some Polls Conducted by Special Interest Groups?").
IWF released a detailed report of the findings, for which I commend the group. In examining the poll, I focused on two matters, the sample and question-wordings.
IWF/Polling Company listed 35 "swing" districts in which the poll was conducted, 15 in which a Democratic member had voted "no" on initial passage of the House bill last November, and 20 in which a Democratic member had voted "yes." Thirty-nine Democrats voted "no" in November, so it was not initially clear if the 15 "no" districts surveyed were representative of all districts represented by a Democrat who voted "no."
For the most part, Democrats who voted "no" came from districts ranging from a slight Democratic lean at the presidential level (i.e., districts won by Obama by a few percentage points) to a strong Republican lean (won by McCain by 20, 30, or even 35 percentage points). If IWF/Polling Company had polled disproportionately from strong Republican districts (that happened to elect Democrats to Congress), that could have systematically lowered support levels for health care reform in their poll.
Using this New York Times list of Democrats who voted "no" on initial House passage (and the accompanying statistics), I found IWF/Polling Company to have done a fair job of selecting Democratic "no" districts. Of the 15 such districts polled, most were ones won by McCain or Obama by single digits. There were some exceptions (e.g. Texas's 17th Congressional District, won by McCain by 35%; Tennessee's 6th CD, won by McCain by 25%); however, several of the Democratic "no" districts left out of the survey also had similarly large McCain margins. I give IWF/Polling Company good marks on district selection.
I was not as satisfied with the survey's question-wording, though. Many items had what I would consider an anti-health care reform tone. Examples include the following agree-disagree items, shown in green italics:
It is the responsibility of the federal government to mandate that everyone have government-approved health insurance and to be penalized if they do not.
Terms such as "mandate," "government-approved," and "penalized" seem slanted to evoke negative responses. Plus, the fact that most individuals would continue to receive health insurance through their jobs might well be obscured by the part of the item suggesting people would have to go out and get "government approved" insurance.
It would be an unprecedented violation of individual rights for the federal government to mandate that everyone have government-approved health insurance and to be penalized if they do not.
The phrase "unprecedented violation of individual rights" might just be a tad inflammatory?
Americans have the right to spend their own money to have access to legal health care services, treatments, and tests.
That would be a hard one to disagree with.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the cost of health insurance premiums in the individual market will increase on average by $2,100 in the year 2016. This means that if the bill passes, families will pay $15,200 per year, but $13,100 per year if it did not pass.
This statement, read to participants who then said whether it would make them more or less likely to support the legislation, gives only part of the story. According to Talking Points Memo, "According to CBO, average premiums in the individual market would increase 10 to 13 percent because of provisions in the Senate health care bill, but, crucially, most people (about 57 percent) would actually find themselves paying significantly less money for insurance, thanks to federal subsidies for low- and middle-class consumers, than they would under current law."
Interestingly, even amidst these arguably tendentious survey items, one testing support for the proposition that "Health reform should focus on making sure everyone has insurance" found 53% in favor. Universality is, of course, a key goal of the Democrats, although roughly 6% of Americans are expected to be left uncovered under the proposed legislation.
I, too, have my own values and viewpoints, and perhaps am evaluating the poll too harshly. I encourage everyone to read the original IWF/Polling Company report for themselves and reach their own opinion.