10/14/2009 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Public Option: Who Knows It? Who Wants It?

Regular readers may recall my lament that despite the many, many times pollsters have asked Americans to react to descriptions of the so-called "public option" in health care reform, very few have attempted to probe the depth of Americans' knowledge about the proposal.

The point of debate is often whether Americans "want" a public option. These arguments sometimes get expressed in the context of representative democracy. "65% of Americans are begging Congress for an inclusive public option," wrote one Daily Kos diarist a few weeks ago, yet "our Representatives in the Senate are REFUSING to give The People what they overwhelmingly want." Poll questions like the one cited by the diarist typically measure how Americans react to a brief description of the Public Option concept. Those are helpful, but if Americans are really "begging" for a public option, we might also want to measure how many know what the public option is before hearing the pollster's description.

Unless I've missed it, the only effort to tackle this question was an opt-in internet panel survey conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates and presented at an event they sponsored with AARP [see correction below]. They found that only 37% of their adult sample could correctly identify the Public Option from a list of three possible choices. As Nate Silver pointed out, if the respondents had picked randomly, a third (33%) would have chosen correctly.

Today, we have a new measure from a respected source that has often probed Americans about their level of political knowledge: The Pew Research Center today released an update of their semi-annual "News IQ Quiz," a survey that poses a dozen multiple choice or true/false questions about key facts in the news.

Today's update includes three questions about the health care debate, reproduced in the box below:


The Pew survey finds that a majority of adults (56%) are able to associate "public option" with health care rather than another issue. On the one hand, as the report points out, that awareness ranks toward the high end of Pew's awareness questions. On the other, as a gauge of knowledge, the bar is pretty low. Recognizing that the term "public option" has something to do with health care does not mean you can explain what the term means, how it might work or who it might cover. At least we know that nearly half of Americans (44%) have no clue that the term even involves the health care debate.

How many Americans both know what the public option is and "want" it? Unfortunately, the Pew survey includes no favor-or-oppose questions, so we have to guess, but the number probably falls far short of a majority. The Pew Report does tell us that Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to correctly answer the public option question (59% for each), so it's unlikely that the more knowledgeable are radically different in terms of their attitudes about specific reform proposals. In other words, are 65% really "begging" for a public option? Not likely.

Of course, attitudes about public policy are seldom static, and it's fair to expect our representatives to take into account attitudes that are "latent" and might flower into actual opinions as awareness grows later in the debate or during some future election campaign. That said, health care has been about as high profile as legislative debates get, so we are not likely to see big swings in awareness or opinion over the next few months. What people "want" now is pretty much what they will want when members of Congress cast their floor votes on health care legislation later this year.

Correction: The original version of this post said the Penn, Schoen, Berland poll was "sponsored by AARP (an organization that has not taken a formal position on the public option)."  PSB emailed to say that while they presented their survey at an event they sponsored with AARP, the seniors groups did not pay for the poll itself.