09/14/2009 04:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Interpreting "Who do you trust" polls

Though the public is closely divided on health care reform, Matthew Yglesias suggests an alternative interpretation in which "Obama is clearly winning" on the issue because of the zero sum nature of partisan politics. As evidence, he cites the public's preference for Democrats on the "Who do you trust to do a better job handling health care?" question in the latest Washington Post poll (48% Democrats, 36% Republicans).

However, it's not clear that the issue is zero sum. While a plurality of the public may prefer the Democratic approach to health care reform to the Republican approach (i.e. D > R), many of those same people may prefer the status quo to both parties' approaches (i.e. SQ > D > R). As a result, the Democratic pursuit of health care reform may hurt them more than Republicans, who are unlikely to have the power to pass legislation any time soon.

Update 9/14 4:41 PM: To clarify, the question is whether saying you trust Republicans to handle health care can be interpreted as a preference for the status quo over the Democratic proposals and nothing more. My argument is that saying you trust Republicans to "handle" health care may instead be interpreted as indicating a preference for the GOP's private market approach to reform (i.e. John McCain's plan). If a large number of people interpret the question this way and don't like the private market approach, the Democatic approach could look artificially popular. Individual-level poll data would help us adjudicate between these two different stories.

(Cross-posted to