The Problem With Polls

Those who advocate government-run healthcare have seized upon a New York Times/CBS News poll published yesterday that shows 72 percent of Americans support the idea of a government health plan competing with private insurers.

I can understand advocates cheering this survey without question, but I’m a little disappointed in many of the news stories and journalists’ blogs I’ve seen that cite the NYT/CBS data without putting it in perspective or asking questions about its actual significance.

Here are some questions that should be raised when looking at these poll numbers:

• Are people saying “yes” to more choices without being asked to consider the possible ramifications?  Let’s be honest.  Most Americans have not spent a great deal of time dwelling on the pros and cons of the government health plan debate.  The Times is essentially asking people a simple question – do you want more choices?  There’s no obvious downside to answering “yes.” 

But would the answer still be “yes” if people knew there was a danger of the government health plan driving insurers out of the market and reducing the number of available coverage choices?  Or if they knew of the potential danger to hospitals, because of an increased reliance on government payments that do not equal the actual cost of care?  The NYT/CBS survey doesn’t delve into these questions.  Rather, they ask a choice-without-consequences question for which an overwhelmingly positive response was quite predictable.

• The NYT/CBS poll clashes with a recent Rasmussen survey showing the public evenly divided, 41 percent apiece, for and against the government health plan concept.  I wish more news reports had looked into why there is such a significant difference between the two polls.

• Looking into the poll methodology tells us that the NYT/CBS survey oversampled people who voted for Barack Obama instead of John McCain in the 2008 elections.  Now, for the sake of accuracy, pollsters should seek more Obama voters as respondents.  But the Times polled Obama supporters by an almost two-to-one margin even though the election had Obama winning 53%-46%.  One might surmise this would have an impact on survey findings.

• The NYT/CBS survey has some interesting contradictions.  The survey shows that 77 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with their own healthcare, and 63 percent say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that more government involvement will make their healthcare worse.  This underscores why there should have been more follow-up questions on the government health plan issue.  Are Americans willing to risk a negative impact on their own healthcare just to have a government-run health plan in the marketplace?

What really concerns me about this survey is that many Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are working tirelessly and in good faith to craft a bipartisan approach to healthcare reform that will get more people covered, improve quality and control costs.  Glancing at the blogosphere yesterday, I’m seeing this poll used as a weapon to push Democrats to abandon bipartisanship and push through a controversial approach that may not have the strong public support that the New York Times leads us to believe.