We live in the era of permanent campaigns. Elections which used to be contained within the month or year of the actual voting, now form a constant backdrop to the democracy. Alongside the toxic commentary and baseless opinions that dominate cable “news”, voters can see a constant parade of poll results. What we the people aren’t shown, is the question order, context, or full spectrum of questions found in the polls. As with all reporting, it is the information that we don’t see or hear that demonstrate the bias or intent of the source.
The original intent of political polling is customer service; a politician or business asks the customers what their feelings are in order to better design the service. But polling has taken on a very different role in U.S. politics today. Winning the “battle” of public opinion on specific bills is the key to the process; prove you can drive approval, and networks, newspapers, and magazines will follow your cues. Prove you can drive a story, and political allies and fundraisers will flock to your banner. Polling, and the poor standard of reporting that accompanies the art, are the foundation for the straw-man strategy that political operatives have now perfected.
The textbook example in U.S. politics is the battle for health care reform. The need for some type of reform was acknowledged by both parties. Elections in 2008 featured health care reform as the driving issue, and every major candidate had some form of aggressive reform package on their platform. A CNN poll taken in late June of 2009 found 51% of respondents in favor of the House plan for health care reform, a plan that included the now infamous public option. The poll was not unlike dozens of other polls taken at the same time, most of which showed small majorities favoring the plans. What followed throughout the summer is now the battle-tested blueprint for legislative strategy.
Regardless of your individual position on the example of health care reform, this strategy should be a concern for you the voter. The concept is to use branding to drive public opinion as expressed by polling. The party in opposition (in this case, the Republicans), spent the summer and fall hammering away at very specific talking points that were either exaggerations or else tangentially related to the bill:
- Death Panels: A myth derived from a clause in the House bill originally written for the Medicare Act of 2004 (which was pushed and passed by Republicans). Now in a Democratic bill, the same Republicans used the clause as an example of a near-evil overreach by liberal lawmakers.
- The Length of the Bill: First reported by the “liberal mainstream media”, the length was cited by conservatives as evidence of the “big government” takeover of medicine. Apparently, the idea that it takes lawyers a lot of paper to be transparent in their dealings is lost on conservatives when the big bill is Democratic in origin. The legislation proposed by Henry Paulsen that was to be TARP (the bailout) was three pages long. How many Tea Partiers would have liked more explanation?
- The Cost of the Bill: An early draft of the bill in the Senate was close to $1.6 trillion, but Democratic leadership quickly acknowledged the need for it to get smaller. The final House bill was just over $100 billion per year (over ten years), with the final Senate bill checking in at just over $85 billion per year. Republican lawmakers, including Mitch McConnell and John Boehner continued to refer to the “$2 trillion government takeover” throughout the entire process. In contrast to health reform, the Bush tax cuts cost $1.8 trillion over 6 years, and they were supposed to drive economic growth.
- The Government Takeover: No conservative has yet to articulate how a law that demands no profit-sharing, voting rights, ownership stake, tactical management control, human resource capacity, or capital management authority qualifies as a takeover. Exaggeration on that scale is meaningful to 6th graders on recess; it is unseemly in the halls of Congress.
These talking points took a toll on public support for the reform package. That the overall numbers were crashing is not in doubt, and news organizations, having made the decision to cover polls as news, dutifully reported the top line numbers. Looking back at the CNN poll, this time from December of 2009, we can see that public support had dwindled to just 36%. The major theme of reporting at that time, and the major obstacle to getting the legislation passed, was the idea of the “public option”.Several conservative Democrats in the Senate were opposed to the bill on the grounds that the public option was wrong, and the voters did not want it.
A government-run health care plan that would compete with private insurers was, the conventional wisdom said, the “real” issue with the public. Voters, everyone reported, had moved on from the GOP talking points, and were now concerned with deep government involvement in the industry, and the debt burdens such a step would incur. The fall in support confirmed conventional wisdom, and validated the vacillating Democrats in the Senate. Or did it?
Look again at that poll, and polls by Ipsos/McClatchy (11/09), Economist/YouGov (11/09), ABC/Washington Post (12/09), and Quinnipiac (August through December of 2009); you will find either a plurality or outright majority of Americans in favor of the public option. The wording of the questions is even more striking; most are specific in asking respondents about a “government-run option to private insurance”. ABC/Washington Post was specific about Medicare expansion, on a premium basis, as an alternative to the public option.
The evidence from polling throughout the fall is clear and irrefutable; Americans wanted a public option in the bill. The emerging liberal split, where cross-tabs from the polls showed that some 10% of Americans opposed the bill because it wasn’t liberal enough, further confirms the dynamic. Commentators, both liberal and conservative, consistently failed to tell the full story revealed by the pollsters, and the partial story served to reaffirm the branding work being done by conservatives. Legislators followed the diagnosis of the pundits on television, allowing the polling to morph into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
It is still amazing to me how the Affordable Care Act passed, given all of the weapons used against it accidentally and on purpose. Now, as the rules pursuant to the law are being released, the process is beginning anew. We are back in an election cycle…still. Since the passage of health care, we have seen polling and the poor reporting of it used to blunt financial reform, the jobs bill, and the further prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. For the next four months, prognosticators will tie themselves in knots in an attempt to twist the poll results of the day into reasons that conservatives and liberals should come out to vote, or stay home.
In 2006, conservative voters beaten down by ethics and sex scandals, pessimistic about George W. Bush’s approval ratings, and disillusioned about the war in Iraq, stayed home on election day. The odds were stacked in favor of a big day for Democrats, but the reporting of poll numbers throughout the summer and fall set the stage for conservative apathy in November. That apathy turned a bad day for Republicans into a triumphant day for Democrats. I wonder if this November will serve as a role reversal?
The Rational Middle is listening…