The devil’s in the details: Heritage Action for America’s Obamacare poll may not say what Heritage Action for America says it says

August 17, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 17, 2013

There was a lot of buzz Wednesday around the release of a poll by Heritage Action for America, the political action wing of a respected conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. The telephone poll of 1,000 likely general-election voters in 10 different congressional districts found significant support for defunding the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare. A majority of respondents also said that the prospect of a government shutdown did little to deter their desire to thwart the health care reform law.

Here’s the second paragraph of Heritage Action’s press release:

Independents in the survey strongly support defunding Obamacare by a margin of 57 percent to 34 percent. Further, only 20 percent of voters in these districts support going forward with Obamacare unchanged.

I want to focus on the latter sentence, which says that only a fifth of those surveyed want the health care reform law to be implemented without changes. The pollsters posed this question (see page 3):

Which of the following three views comes closest to your own?

1. I support the health care law, and think it should go forward fully and without changes.

2. I have concerns about the health care law, and think its implementation should be slowed down, and changes should be made to it.

— Or —

3. I oppose the health care law, and think it should be repealed.

Just as the press release states, 20 percent of respondents (200 people) opted for the first answer. The most popular option was the last one, calling for repeal, which 44.5 percent backed. Of the remaining respondents, 32 percent said they want Obamacare to be slowed down and changed, while a handful declined to answer. 

There are two ways of interpreting these results. One is that a whopping 76.5 percent of respondents — more than two-thirds! — want Obamacare changed or repealed.

But add the numbers differently and the data points in the opposite direction. It’s equally valid to say that 52 percent of respondents, a slim majority, would like to see the Affordable Care Act proceed intact or kept with some modifications. Needless to say, this interpretation isn’t touted by Heritage Action for America.

There are reams of polling data that have been gathered on the Affordable Care Act over the last four years. As this Real Clear Politics page makes, well, clear, the public has generally opposed Obamacare by a margin of six to 15 percentage points.

Yet this top line view of the reform law can be a bit misleading. A June 2012 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 56 percent of respondents opposed the Affordable Care Act and 61 percent disliked one of its key provisions, the individual mandate.

That sounds pretty negative. But check these results from the same poll:

Support for the provisions of the healthcare law was strong, with a full 82 percent of survey respondents, for example, favoring banning insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Sixty-one percent are in favor of allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 and 72 percent back requiring companies with more than 50 employees to provide insurance for their employees.

In fact, polls have repeatedly found that many Obamacare provisions are popular with the American public, even if the law as a whole is not. This pattern showed up, for instance, in a March 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

That survey found that at least 57 percent of Americans support 10 different Obamacare provisions, excluding the individual mandate but including a penalty for large employers that fail to offer health insurance for their workers. In fact, Kaiser’s poll showed that 61 percent or more of Republicans who were surveyed (!) favor these five Affordable Care Act provisions: giving tax credits to help small businesses provide health insurance, closing gaps in Medicare coverage, creating health insurance exchanges, extending the time children can be covered by their parents’ insurance policies, and subsidizing individuals’ purchases of health insurance.

(Incidentally, the Kaiser poll revealed that there is widespread public ignorance about what is in the health care reform law, a phenomenon that Ezra Klein of The Washington Post examined here.)

But let’s get back to this week’s Heritage Action for America poll. As Alex Seitz-Wald discussed at Salon, although the survey is being billed as showing that Republicans shouldn’t fear a government shutdown over Obamacare, it contains another result that ought to give conservatives pause. When asked whom they would mainly blame if a confrontation over the health care law led to a shutdown, a plurality, 28.3 percent, said they would hold Republicans in Congress responsible.

True, 21.6 percent of respondents said they would point the finger at President Obama, and another 19.1 percent would hold Democrats in Congress culpable. Combined, obviously, these totals outweigh the proportion who would blame the GOP.

But that plurality ought to present a red flag for conservatives because of two aspects of Heritage Action’s poll.

One is that the wording of the query about the shutdown (“a temporary slowdown in non-essential federal government operations, which still left all essential government services running”) really soft-pedals the impact of that scenario. That’s why Seitz-Wald and others describe the Heritage Action survey as a push poll.

The other thing to keep in mind is the nature of the 10 congressional districts that Heritage Action polled. Every single one has at least 5 percent more registered Republicans than Democrats; in six of the districts, the Republican advantage is in the double-digits. The Heritage Action poll contains responses from 418 people who identified themselves as Republicans and 330 who called themselves Democrats. (The remainder are independent or did not answer the question.)

The most recent Gallup poll found more Democrats than Republicans by a margin of 31 percent to 24 percent. The margins change to 44 percent and 41 percent, respectively, when independent voters’ political affinities are incorporated.

Now consider the disparity between nationwide political affiliations and that of the group that Heritage Action for America surveyed. Despite identifying more strongly as Republican than the public at large, a majority of Heritage respondents want to keep Obamacare in one form or another, and a plurality would blame congressional Republicans for a government shutdown.

“There is no present evidence that a move to de-fund Obamacare, and the potential of a partial government shutdown, would harm Republican prospects of holding the House majority,” pollster Jon Lerner said in Heritage Action’s press release Wednesday.

That is, of course, one way of interpreting the data. But it’s not necessarily the correct interpretation.

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