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The Tea Party vs. the Polls


Remember when the Iraq War protests stopped the Iraq War?

Yeah. Me neither. Nor, for that matter, does Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh, which leaves me a bit confused by their joyous reaction to the Tea Party that took place in Washington on Sunday. Estimates peg it somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people, which makes it an admirable bit of organizing, but not a contender for the protest hall of fame. What it seems, rather, is the progression of a broader societal trend: The advent of online organizing is making it easier to connect large numbers of like-minded people and ask them to attend a rally. It's done that for politicians like Barack Obama, protesters of all sorts and stripes, and even flash mobs.

More interesting, I'd say, is the poll The Washington Post released this morning. The country is split on Obama's handling of health-care reform: 48 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove. When asked about the reform effort itself, 46 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove.

And that's before the polling gets weird. On the two most contentious questions in the health-care reform debate -- the public option and the role of the Republican Party -- the American people get downright incoherent.

Let's start with the public option. A solid 55 percent of the country supports "having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans." That supports jumps to 76 percent if the option is reserved for those unable to get health insurance now. But for all that, when asked if they would favor health-care reform if the government option was dropped from the package, support jumps to 50 percent. In other words, the America people strongly favor the public option, but prefer health-care reform without it.

Or take Republicans. Asked whether the Democrats should change health-care reform to attract Republican support, 71 percent support the effort to reach across the aisle. But asked whether Republicans are "making a good faith effort to cooperate with Obama and the Democrats on health care reform," 62 percent say they're not. And when asked whether Obama and the Democrats are making a good-faith effort to reach out to the Republicans, 50 percent say they are. To sum up, Americans believe the Democrats should rewrite the bill to attract the support of Republicans, even as they believe Republicans have not been negotiating in good faith, and Democrats have been.

What you saw at the Tea Party this weekend was a lot of certainty about health-care reform. "No" polled at 100 percent. The American people, however, evince no such clarity. They're confused about health-care reform, and particularly about the process. They'd be comforted by some level of consensus in Washington, even though they realize one party desires nothing of the sort. I imagine that it would be hard for a congressman to know exactly what to think of these numbers.

But perhaps the most important poll result for our perplexed legislator came toward the end of the survey. The poll asked whether people would be more or less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supported health-care reform. Here too, the crowd was ambivalent. But more than ambivalent, they were uninterested. About 22 percent would be more likely to vote for the congressman. About 23 percent would be less likely. And 54 percent said it would make no difference to them at all.

That, at least, is a majority opinion.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 14, 2009; 10:44 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform , Polls  
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Next: 'An Appendage of the Organism'


This is called losing the messaging war, Ezra. We may get a decent bill (although the public option is gone, daddy, gone), but it's tough to understand why Obama and the Democrats dithered the summer away by negotiating with themselves and placating Grassley and Collins and even Snowe (whom I believe is more anti-reform than is evident from her public statements).

Once a stimulus bill larded up with tax cuts failed to get one single GOP vote in the House (hello, Mike Castle?), then it was obvious to even lil' ol' me how the Republicans were going to behave in the wake of an historic election and in the face of unprecedented challenges. Why wasn't it as obvious to the White House?

Posted by: scarlota | September 14, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Incoherence arises from uninformed opinion. Jay Leno's forays into the vacuous, uneducated mind of popular culture reveals how fundamentally uninformed the American people are, and therefore vulnerable to disinformation campaigns from the right. This presents opportunities that with time and information support for a plan will build. This was shown by before and after polling done of those who watched the speech health care speech before Congress. With time and information support builds

Posted by: cmpnwtr | September 14, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse


It's fun and makes for exciting writing to make things sound mysterious and anomalous, but this stuff is important, so let's try to see the reality. A key aspect is that the wording of survey questions is important. It can have a big impact on how the public interprets it, and for many, their interpretation can be very different than one of the literal interpretations that would make them sound incoherent (plus, with someone on the other end of the phone awaiting an answer, people don't spend a lot of time to think and remember).

For example, for, "Asked whether the Democrats should change health-care reform to attract Republican support, 71 percent support the effort to reach across the aisle.", they may just mean that they think it WOULD be good to make perhaps some, but not necessarily any, compromise, IF it would make get Republican support. But a later question shows that they don't think the Republicans are interested in compromising, at least not for something that's not still extreme right (if anything at all; they may just prefer Democratic failure over even an extreme right bill)

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 14, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Question 27 is an interesting one, and the trend suggests that the President's strategy might be working.

I'm perplexed, though when comparing the results of question 19 with either the demographics (908a) or the numbers folks have been throwing around. The results for question 19 have been relatively stable over the years, which is also a bit perplexing.

Posted by: rmgregory | September 14, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Man, when you did in to nearly any poll the American public can look incoherent.

Posted by: y2josh_us | September 14, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Apathy is a proud American tradition.

Posted by: bluegrass1 | September 14, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Seriously, Mr. Klein.

I don't even need a poll! I know what the american people want!!

Less taxes, but for the govt to DO MORE.
For someone else to pay their bills.
For them to pay nothing.
For someone else to blame.
Again, for them to pay nothing for it. And, oh, keep their standard of living and have it increase, anyway.
And pay nothing for it.
And not worry about it.

It's incredibly easy.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 14, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

that slim majority 55% support for public option would surely plummet when people find out it would threaten their private insurance, which 75% of americans say they are happy with.

this deal aint going to happen. they'll pass something, call it reform, and use rosey scenarios and accounting gimmicks to paper over their irreponsible spending (like using 10 years of revenue to pay for 7 years of reform in the first ten year budget window) but the dems clearly were delluded about their "mandate" and approached this health care overhaul with typical arrogance and condecension.

Posted by: dummypants | September 14, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

dummypants: the problem is what they're now putting into the legislation.
They're 'taking away' the 'government option.'
But what's going in is 'triggers.'
So they set up some dummy 'triggers' that the insurance companies couldn't possibly meet, and voila! they don't meet the criteria - at some point in the future - and well, then the 'government option' sets in.

It's all absurd. If anyone really cared about our health care, they'd be providing us with health CARE. They think the insurance companies are so evil - yet they're setting up insurance companies? Why is that?
Think about it.
It's to take over your health care, eventually. I am not a loony crackpot, but seriously - why else are they so intent on doing this? It will NOT improve our health care.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 14, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Lincoln (or whomever) was mostly correct:

"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. ..."

The Beck 9/12 malcontents fit into the 'some of people' slot - they lap up and regurgitate whatever the TV/radio crazy media figures say with no mental processing whatever.

The media has made the 'all of the people some of the time' slot with the incoherentcy of their 'reporting' and 'analysis'.

But on any complex issue, 'all of the people, all of the time' is unobtainable when truth value is ignored by both participants and the media.

Regardless of what, if anything, finally passes on health care, the long delay in implementation (2013-14) planned will muddy the water so long that repeal is equally likely to occur compared to actual operation of the law.

Can anybody look forward with joy to 5 years of this nonsense?

"No joy" will be the meme real soon now.

[reposted from thread below where it didn't belong].

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | September 14, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

An "admirable bit of organizing"?
30,000 people, for a national protest, with substantial buildup and the full-throated support of multiple media outlets? That's not admirable, it's a joke.

They threw a protest and nobody showed. Stop pretending like this was even a limited triumph for the right! It was an embarrassment.

Posted by: adamiani | September 14, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

The Post should ask people whether they like the Republicans' idea of spending MORE taxpayers' money to cover poor individuals under private insurance than under the public insurance choice. That should improve the Post numbers on the "public option" back up to the 70-80% approval that all the other polls show.

The public option will NOT put the private insurers out of business. This is a lie. It will become a two-tier system like Australia. Overview:

Australia: Public coverage for all, and half the population chooses to carry private coverage on top. Yet total per capita health expenditure is half the U.S.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | September 14, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

If we make healthcare more affordable via first party payer...a lot of this goes away. No one even knows how much this stuff costs now, which why they keep asking for more money from other people, they don't even know how much it costs.

I'll bet 75% of people don't even fundamentally understand what insurance is, and probably don't want to pay for it for themselves. Mandatory high deductible coverage has to be step one. (Of course, we need to re-regulate to ensure that high deductible coverage is allowed to exist.)

Posted by: staticvars | September 14, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

This isn't about left wing or right wing (a fact you subtly alluded to by throwing in Rush Limbaugh's name). This is about a run away government that is as much democratic as the Chinese are communist.

People are angry at the overall movement of the country. I think it is astounding - I mean utterly, fantastically, amazing that our President's main mission is to pass a health care bill while our unemployment is riding at 10%, our deficit is in the trillions, Biden is saying we are possibly going to go bankrupt and we are losing more soldiers lives in Afghanistan than at any other time.

I mean are Obama and many of our officials in our govt. really in touch with reality? I am starting to think Obama is one very polished, well spoken fruit cake.

Posted by: bgodley | September 14, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Please consider referring to members of congress and congressmembers (or congresscritters, if you prefer) rather than congressmen.

As a purported progressive and a writer, I'd think you'd want to be on the side of inclusive language. It makes a difference.

Posted by: acridrabbit | September 14, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

This is what happens when you get a population that is opposed to health care because they are mad about the Wall Street bailout.
This is what happens when you have a population that believes Medicare is not "a government program".
This is what happens when a nation enters the third presidential administration which nearly half the population considers illigitmate.

Posted by: hackett1 | September 14, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

dummypants and others on the right refuse to acknowledge that Obama spent what has been spent to correct a contries banking system which had taken us to the brink. Obama completed and added to an effort by GWB to right our country. He didn't just come into office and put into place a bunch of new policies - he took control of a country sprialing out of control.

Now we have to accept it when we are told it was necessary. I don't understand, where were you people when we went to war with Iraq? Spent over a trillion $$ and all for what?

It's no wonder so many of us are NOT taking you people seriously. This has more to do with Obama and the right having lost the WH than it does about "principal" - you are more transparent that you think you are.

Oh, and how is it Fox reported 1 - 1.5 million marching on Washington when every other news organization keeps that number below 100 thousand? I suppose Fox is the only one telling the truth huh? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Posted by: Kathy5 | September 14, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Actually, Kathy5, even Fox News said there were "tens of thousands" of people. The 1-1.5 million number got started when some guy at Freedom Works lied and said that ABC News had given that estimate, which ABC News quickly then made a point of saying they had not.

Posted by: tagimaucia | September 14, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

We keep hearing that most people are satisfied with their insurance, and I don't doubt that's true. But I would love to see some polls or studies that (somehow) compare customer/patient satisfaction before and after a serious illness that requires more interaction with and claims submitted to insurance. How many people thought they were satisfied and then were put through the wringer when they actually needed help?

Posted by: Janine1 | September 14, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

It's like living in a nation divided by two species of human: the modern human variety and the red-neck variety. Hmmm... me thinks the red-neck variety will go the way of Neanderthal man.

Posted by: PulSamsara | September 14, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

The Bush and Obama administrations both dismissed large protests movements without any attempt to address their concerns. Not surprising that both administrations were pretty much incompetent.

Posted by: DavidBerkian | September 14, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Leadership by we the people made the 9/12 Tea Party a success vs. being dictated and paid to show up at another event.

Posted by: 45upnorth | September 14, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

TO: scarlota who wrote:
“…the public option is gone, daddy, gone…”

Without the public option, insurance companies maintain control, and you lose.
Obviously you’re trying to paint yourself as some sort of evil genius, but the fact is, you have no idea what you’re talking about because your leaders have filled you up with their scare tactics.


Posted by: lindalovejones | September 14, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein, When will you and the paper print a retraction on the size of the Tea Party rally crowd?? pkalmar

Posted by: pkalmar | September 14, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

To all my conservative friends....can you smell that? that stench coming from the left? Yes, kind of a sickly, sour sweaty odor? That my friends is FEAR pure and simple. They screwed the pooch once again and elected a clueless buffoon (think Jimmy 'the joke' Carter). They know it now of course and are making tiny poops in their Swiss hiking shorts. Patience my friends 2010 and then 2012 is not far off so sit back and enjoy the show.

Posted by: epmurphy | September 14, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

"The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter."

-Winston Churchill

The purposeful dumbing of America by the wealthy and zionists is working. The divide and conquer is working.

These town hollers consist of miserable old retired white guys who had to settle for a Crown Victoria instead of the caddy they used in their carrot dream while on the corporate chain gang and their wives who lost their minds under the weight of spousal oppression and the major religions which force them forever in the passenger seat.

The tea-baggers, once interviewed (and why are we forced to listen to anything republican?) either have a different excuse for their unfocused wrath or are incapable of articulating it.

The marchers in D. C. are the grandchildren of the marchers of 1925 sans white hoods.

And the fools who identify themselves as "conservatives" and still support the party of greed, which have nearly enslaved our children to communist China, stripped the wealth of the middle and working classes for Wall St. and Big Banks apparently don't own dictionaries nor brains.

Posted by: mot2win | September 14, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

"Estimates peg it somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people"

Very, very low estimates. Certainly not "pegged."

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | September 14, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

I am a single mother of four children. I make 32k and can not afford medical coverage for me and my children. Why? Because I have to choose to pay the $365.00 each pay($730.00 a month) to cover us or bring that money home to pay bills and put food on our table. I support the President health reform.

Posted by: AREALSINGLEMOTHER | September 14, 2009 11:19 PM | Report abuse

MSNBC night news put the number at 100's of thousands for the Tea Party rally.

It sounds like there was not any firm numbers.

Those polls do show lots of contradiction, I think atlmom1234 has it right.

Posted by: win1 | September 15, 2009 12:32 AM | Report abuse

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Pass the bill with public option or single payer (yeah, I know fat chance in torpedoland) or at least some tough reining in of the insurance ripoffs, and let's get on with the economy and green jobs!

Posted by: glenglish | September 15, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

The American public is right to be suspicious of leadership that will not take immediate and specific action that would reduce an estimated $200 billion dollars from the Nation’s annual medical bill.

Posted by: JamesRaider | September 16, 2009 12:46 AM | Report abuse

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