Poll Position

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…

11 thoughts on “Poll Position

  1. Okay..this may be a bit off topic, but I did want to get this said.

    For all the times I’ve had to suffer some liberal ideologically opposed individual mewling that I (or others) are only parroting O’Reilly, Beck, et. al. AND I HOPE SOME OF YOU ARE PAYING ATTENTION (sorry)…tonight, almost 4 days after I stated it here, O’Reilly says virtually the same thing I said about the negative “realities” that will impact the election.

    I don’t know if that makes ME smarter than O’Reilly or just both of us stupid!!! Let’s not take a vote! At least not here!! :-)

  2. Pingback: Health Care Reform: A Refresher, Part Three | The Pigeon Post

  3. Okay…Quickly……I found this wise comment and I thought it might prove pertinent to my comments here:

    “If the voters aren’t happy, they will generally view the current administration as the cause of their distress, and take out their frustration on incumbents.”

    Isn’t that what I said??

  4. Michael. First, let me make it clear no insult was intended. Perhaps for reasons we won’t discuss you have some pre-disposal there. But that comment was not an insult. It was a reasonably informed opinion. You may disagree with that opinion but please, don’t view it as an insult. Slipped in or otherwise. I’m sure you consider yourself neither ill informed or gullible. Nor do I.

    You are one vote and I canceled yours out :-) so we’ll consider we are not talking about individuals here. But as a whole, I feel many of those that voted for President Obama, and certainly enough to turn the outcome of the election, absolutely were gullible and ill-informed. (Could President Obama’s plummeting approval numbers reflect that?) Based on what little I know about you, I would not suppose you to be one of that crowd. But what I know about you would also lead me to believe that you are certainly aware many people voted for President Obama for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with his qualifications. I have had this similar discussion with others. President Obama may turn out to be the greatest President we have ever had. And I hope he does although it’s certainly looking doubtful. But, in my opinion, and based on whatever research and information I have been able to assimilate, he was elected by a large segment of America that was gullible and ill-informed. Present company excepted.

    Your next two paragraphs, I can take no exception with. And I did not make comment as to how well or not he was handling these things, how they were progressing, whatever. I think even the most ardent and fervent supporter of this President would have to agree he has, for whatever reason, been unable to follow through on related promises, but I’m not taking him to task for that either.

    I’m just saying they are realities that affect people’s opinions and evaluation of his Presidency. Right or wrong. It’s about perceptions. We are still in Iraq. Guantanamo is still open and full. We are escalating in Afghanistan and THAT’S not going so well currently. The economy is still floundering and oil continues to gush into the Gulf. These are the realities that affect the general population’s perception of Obama’s Presidency. I don’t think most people will look beyond the evening news’ sound bites to form an intelligent and informed opinion about what is going on. Be they Right or Left.

    I would disagree with you on one point though. Well….kinda sorta. While I would tend to agree the fault for the oil spill may lie in corporate negligence leading up to it, that negligence was given the stamp of approval (as best I can determine) by the very people that should have been guarding against it on behalf of we, the people. They did exactly what they were allowed to do.

    I will apologize for what could be considered a crude reference (terminology only) to Health Care Reform. With caveat. It was a comment on an ideological philosophy specifically regarding Health Care Reform and what I feel is the power grab that has been fervently hoped for by Democrats and Liberals for decades.

    We obviously differ on our perception of the job President Obama is doing. My observations may not be as educated as yours, but I try hard to stay informed. And I feel I have a decent feel for what is going on. Personally, I feel your evaluation of the President’s performance and your views on the economy are a bit too optimistic just as I’m sure you feel mine are overly critical.

    And while polls may be a reference point and good fodder for discussion, I put heavy emphasis on my day to day life. Honestly, I rarely run into anyone, young or old, professional or blue collar that feels our country is in a good place or headed in a good direction.

    And that Michael is what I feel will drive the outcome of the mid term elections, regardless of turnout.

    I enjoy your blog. I enjoy your rational and usually even handed commentary. I respect your knowledge and intelligence. I genuinely hope you aren’t allowing any other influence to negatively impact your opinion of my comments. And with that said, I am kinda curious why you would zero in on two relatively innocuous phrases in that manner.

  5. Hank, I appreciate your comments as always, but you do have a way of slipping in the insults. I am a a part of that “ill informed and gullible populace” that elected our President by a massive majority. I intend to be there again in 2012, voting for the same individual who, I believe, is doing a fine job.

    The unresolved wars are proceeding along the very path promised by the President in the campaign; a wind down in Iraq with a focus on Afghanistan. We the people were told by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Cheney/Bush Administration that we must “stay the course”…now conservatives have the gumption to question the direction of the war? No sir…this is a no-hypocrisy zone.

    The unresolved oil spill is a market failure, with the only blame reasonably attached to the Obama presidency being a failure to be liberal enough in the run up to effectively crack down on the idiots running those operations. Hank, the Coast Guard was on-scene immediately, major administration officials were on-scene within the week, and the Administration was involved in the effort by the end of week one. The fault for this disaster lies in the corporate negligence leading to it…no President could do any different dealing with this issue. (And yes Hank, the Administration accepted foreign help immediately…the Dutch, Mexican, and Norwegian support offered has been operating in the Gulf for more than 6 weeks.

    President Obama addressed the economy first…its called the stimulus bill, and both CBO and Moody’s have reported that it kept unemployment from reaching between 12.5% and 13.0%. Further, I really must protest your unnecessary and (I feel) inappropriate reference to health care as a “liberal wet dream”. Political philosophy aside (you and I differ on that and I respect your right to do so), that phrasing represents the kind of personal attack that you have criticized others for.

    As far as the elections, you may be correct, but turnout has been the difference in the specials. The younger (and minority) voters that still trend strongly Democratic or not captured in the otherwise excellent polls such as Rasmussen. It will certainly be interesting.

  6. Well, the “pulse on the street” as best I can determine, is that most are concerned about the economic direction they perceive the country to be headed. I don’t think that is driven by “Conservative” commentary as much as Common Sense.

    Michael, the average man on the street does not have your educated understanding of economics and the economy. All they see is trillion dollar this. Trillion dollar that. Mountains of debt. And the rhetoric that the answer to all that debt, is to go further in debt. And that seems ridiculous to most. Pretty simplistic, but then again, most of us are pretty simple.

    I don’t know how reliable the polls are. I only know that virtually every day as I am out, conducting my business of the day, I don’t think I have spoken to ONE person that says they think this country is headed in the right direction economically. Most express concern for the debt and proposed expenditures on top of the already unsustainable (in the opinion of most laymen) debt we already have. From the guy that mows my yard, pumps my gas (well, watches ME pump my gas) to the banker and investment counselor. I don’t believe I have spoken to one that has confidence this country is headed in the right direction economically.

    The euphoria of “Yes we can”, “Hope and Change” has given way to the realities of indefinite wars, unresolved oil spills, rampant debt, corrupt government and an inexperienced, vacillating Presidency. THAT, in my simple opinion, is what will drive people to the polls to try to change the direction.

    2008 was a bad time to be a Republican. It was more a case of “anybody but a Republican” when the elections rolled around. A gullible and ill informed populace elected an inexperienced and ill prepared, but very P.C. and popular Candidate as the President of the United States.

    Barack Obama had every chance to succeed, but he could not rise above the lunacy and extremes of his own party. Once entrenched in the Presidency, he was simply a tool of the career politicians like Pelosi, Frank and Reid to use to try to enact radical policies.

    Come on. I’m simple and I concede you are far more informed on most of this stuff than I am (or want to be). But how much differently might this Presidency have gone had he attacked the Economy first? Hopefully getting it turned around and headed in the right direction, and THEN turned his attention to the Liberal Wet Dream of Health Care Reform/Socialized Medical Care?

    No Sir. I can’t agree that results of these elections will be driven by “turnout”. The same concerns that drove the elections in 2008 will drive the outcome of these mid terms.

    Voters do not like the direction this country is headed. I think regardless the turn out, the vote is going to reflect the same desire for change that was reflected in the 2008 elections.

    Throw the “Bums” out! Let’s give a new set of “Bums” a chance.

  7. Thanks for your comments Shiva, and I hope to see more in the future. Regarding the elections, the issue for those who favor a liberal outcome is clear: turnout. If the Obama voters from 2008 come out to vote, then the Democrats have a chance at gaining seats in the Senate, and would only loose Blue Dog seats in the House. At the moment, that turnout profile does not seem likely.

  8. I do not think that the attacks that you referred to from the summer have ended. We still hear about how Obama has nationalized the banks and taken over the auto industry. These are extraordinarily childish attacks.

    I think we will once again see apathy on the part of the Republicans. With the actions of the Congress in the past year I think they have given the Democrats far more than enough cannon fodder to blow them out of the water. In just the primaries that we have seen in recent months the Democrats have voted Republicans almost 2 to 1. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh cannot carry an election through lies

  9. Pingback: Tweets that mention Poll Position « The Rational Middle -- Topsy.com

Comments are closed.