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Those Bobblehead Polls on Health Care

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A recent series of polls brings to mind a bobblehead doll, whose head wags from side to side and from front to back in a random fashion. That disconnected movement seems to be a visual representation of what the polls have been saying about the general public and its views of President Obama's efforts to reform the health care system.

Before the president's nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress, for example, several polls announced that either a majority or plurality of Americans disapproved of the president's performance on health care. They didn't tell us if the people were dissatisfied because he was trying to do too much, or because he wasn't trying to do enough. All we got was the dismal information about how the public felt let down by the president.

Then, on the Friday after Obama's speech, a CBS poll declared that the public had rallied in favor of the president. A majority of the public now approved of his handling of health care by a 14-point margin, compared to a week earlier when a plurality disapproved by a 7-point margin. That represented a 21-point swing in opinion, which is no mean feat for one speech. (For all poll results, except where noted otherwise, see pollingreport.com.)

But early the following Monday, an ABC/Washington Post poll announced a different opinion. The "bottom line views on health reform," according to the analysis at ABC, "failed to improve since President Obama addressed the nation." His approval rating on health care was essentially unchanged since mid-August, contradicting the CBS finding of a 21-point swing.

Then at 3:00 PM on Monday, CNN revealed that Obama's approval rating showed a 13-point favorable swing over the previous week. Now a majority approved of the president's handling of health care policy, 51 percent to 47 percent, a reversal from a couple of weeks earlier when people disapproved by 53 percent to 44 percent. Not only that, but "strong" opposition to Obama's "plan to reform health care" had dropped by 9 points.

The very next day, a USA Today/Gallup poll asserted that (contrary to CNN's poll) Obama's speech "didn't change minds," and that "for the first time" a majority of Americans disapprove of the way the president is handling health care policy.

Since all these polls were conducted in roughly the same time frame, it makes one wonder if they were all talking about the same public. After all, the pollsters all claim to be using scientific methods of choosing their samples, so that they can interview a representative group of American adults. Could a rational and informed public provide such different scientific measures of its opinion on health care to these four polling organizations?

Perhaps a key to the dysfunctional results can be found in a question that was not reported on CNN's website, politicalticker, but was posted in its archive. When asked how much they knew about the details of Obama's health care proposals, almost six in ten respondents admitted that they knew little to nothing -- after having just opined about them during the previous twenty-minute survey. Only 11 percent said they knew "a good deal."

The ABC/Washington Post poll found a slightly more informed public, with just 44 percent knowing little to nothing about Obama's proposals, and 19 percent saying they knew "a great deal." But a previous poll by CBS perhaps best describes the state of the public: Less than a third said they understand the health care reforms under consideration by Congress, while two-thirds, 67 percent, said the proposals are confusing.

No wonder the polls seem like a bobblehead. Most of the public is confused about the health care debate, and a substantial segment -- a large minority or even a majority, depending on the poll -- doesn't know much about the specific proposals. When these people answer the detailed and arcane questions posed to them in the polls, they respond in an almost random fashion, their answers influenced by the way a question is worded or by the previous questions that have been asked.

Public opinion is not irrelevant in this debate. The public can provide an overall direction to its leaders, and here the polls are useful. They all show a widespread public consensus that the health care system is in great trouble and needs substantial reform. They also show that large majorities of Americans believe that all people should be covered by health insurance and that the government has a responsibility to ensure such coverage. Most Americans also believe that health insurance companies should not exclude people from coverage because of prior medical conditions nor drop people who become sick.

But it is ludicrous to place confidence in polls that ask the general public about the specific details of plans under consideration, when most people don't have that kind of detailed knowledge or at the very least are confused by the many contradictory proposals. The bobblehead public is an illusion created by pollsters who refuse to acknowledge the limits of their craft.