Wednesday, February 3, 2010

When Polling Doesn't Help

There was lots of reaction today to a new Public Policy Polling survey that tried to measure how passing, or not passing, the health care bill would affect Democrats' fortunes in November. 

My sense is that asking people how they would vote if the health care bill did or didn't pass is almost completely worthless.  People aren't very good at predicting how they'll react to things...they don't know whether or not health care will be on their minds in November, and they don't know how that one piece of knowledge will interact with all the other things going on.  They don't know what attack ads will be shown, and even if they did they couldn't tell you, really, how those ads would affect their vote because humans aren't really very good at knowing such things.  Ask me whether I like pizza from one place or another, and if I've been to both I'll give you a meaningful answer.  Ask me whether I'd be more or less likely to be in a good mood next Thursday if I have dinner at my neighborhood pizza parlor on Wednesday, and the answer I'll give you is probably gibberish.  And then if you make it even more confusing....say, tell me I'm going to go to that new pizza place that just opened on Wednesday, and ask how I'll feel on Thursday...well, I may give you an answer, but it's not going to be meaningful at all.  I'm going to be guessing about a new place I've only heard rumors about, and then I'm guessing how my reaction to that place (which is a guess, right?) is going to affect my mood the next day. 

Hey, I'll run with this a bit more.  In fact, if you want to know my reaction to the new pizza place, you're way better off learning about the pizza place and then making an educated guess about how I'll respond.  If it turns out that the new place is run by neophytes who have never baked a pie before, then odds are I won't like it.  If they specialize in deep dish, and you know that I'm not real fond of that, then you can draw further conclusions.  In other words, it helps to know something about the restaurant and something about me, but it doesn't really help all that much to ask my opinion.  Moreover, if you want to know how I'll feel on Thursday, what you really want to do is figure out what my life is like on Thursdays.  It's true that Wednesday dinner can affect my Thursday mood, in either direction, but it's not going to be the only factor, and you need to be really careful to avoid inventing a reaction by asking the question in a particular way. 

All of which is to say: what I really want to know, if I want to know the effect of the health care bill on the 2010 elections, is something about the bill and something about the voters.  Steve Benen gets off to a good start in his remarks, and I want to expand on the good side, and add the bad side that he doesn't discuss.

Good: if the bill passes, there's going to be a signing ceremony, probably very well-staged by the White House.  All the Democratic Members of Congress and liberal activists that have emphasized the things they don't like in the bill?  Once it becomes law, every politician who voted for it is going to stop talking about the problems and only talk about the benefits.  And speaking of which, there are benefits, many of which kick in right away.  The most obvious one, and the one that (depending on the final bill) has the chance to shift opinion the most radically, is filling in the donut hole.  I didn't look at the crosstabs for the new poll, but every previous poll I've seen shows that seniors hate the bill.  If, however, it passes, and has no visible effect on most Medicare recipients except for ending the donut hole, you're going to see a very rapid swing to support for the new law.  Again, that's full predictable, and won't show up in any simple, top-line polling.  As far as I understand the bill, the other immediate benefits are relatively minor in terms of affecting public opinion, but I don't think there will be many immediate visible negative effects, either.

Now, the bad.  What I do expect will happen should the bill become law is that Republicans will continue attacking reform, and they will very quickly find all kinds of horror stories that they will claim are effects of reform.  This will not be hard, in the sense that they aren't going to be looking for horror stories actually caused by reform; they'll be looking for horror stories, and then claim that reform was the cause. 

But there is one other factor that's worth including, which is at the (relatively) elite level, not at the voter level.  As Jonathan Chait suggests, many Democrats out in the country are going to be quite upset if health care reform fails.  And the ones who are going to be the most upset -- because they're the ones paying the most attention -- are going to be the activists, the big-money donors, and generally the people who give the most substantive support to the Democratic Party.  Many voters may wind up forgetting all about health care reform by November, and even the activists might forget by then, but their actions matter now, and in the next few months, when they are not as likely to forget or forgive.

Adding all those things up, to me, is the far more art than science.   Polling can tell you a few things, such as whether seniors are aware of the donut hole or not; those things can help make the decision, but I really think it comes down to political judgment.  Polling really can't answer questions about the magnitude of the activist loss if the thing dies, or how the effects of not-yet-shot ads change depending on whether the bill passes or not, or how quickly seniors switch from frightened to appreciative (and whether and how others will react to the provisions that would take effect this year).  Would you rather be the target of an attack ad claiming that you voted for death panels, and your district is just lucky that it never passed -- or the target of an attack ad claiming that little Bobby died because of the brand new shortage of surgeons brought on by that horrible new law (or even a tamer one blaming increased premiums on the new law)?  Will activists who are angry now really keep their checkbooks in their pockets when confronted with easily demonizeable GOP candidates?  Will anyone care about ending rescissions, since most people won't know that anything has changed?  Simple polling just isn't going to help.  Pols will need to use their political judgment.  And if they don't have much of that, they may find very soon that they're in the wrong line of work.

1 comment:

  1. I think you touched on it when you said donor actions matter now. I'm by no means a large donor, but I do tend to give a little to a cause, candidate, or party when I'm inspired. Sometimes that inspiration comes from something positve the candidate does; sometimes it's due to something negative the opponent does. Right now the dems should be inspiring me (and the gop reverse-inspiring me) to donate based on the next big issue like bank reform or carbon reduction or the November elections. Instead I'm sitting here pissed off that they haven't gotten healthcare done. No way am I going to help them out on upcoming issues when they haven't proven they can put my money to good use.

    Also, HCR does some things right away for the self-employed, small businesses, and people that don't get healthcare through their work. I bet there are some right-leaning people who will finally have some healthcare security and would think twice about voting for the gop when they're saying they want to repeal HCR. Heck, my Fox-watching dad might vote democrat if he thought it would prevent his Medicare donut hole from coming back. I think that's part of why the gop is so scared - once people are hooked on the HCR crack, all bets are off.

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