Yesterday, Thomson Reuters issued a press release regarding the results of a poll which it says showed that 60% of Americans support a “public option.”

Needless to say, this poll is being used by supporters of a government-run plan to pressure Congress. SEIU even used the poll to claim that Republicans were engaging in “Health Care Busting.” The punch line of the poll is being picked up throughout the blogosphere and electronic media. The Hill termed the poll “important” but only linked to the press release, not the actual polling questions and data.

But past experience shows that polls on the public option can be highly misleading in the way the questions are framed. For example, when Consumers Union polled on the public option, it prefaced its questioning with a highly positive description of a public option designed to achieve positive answers. A CBS/NY Times poll similarly phrased the question in a manner designed to portray the public option as positive, and a prior CBS/NY Times poll on health care reform used skewed sampling. A WaPo/ABC poll on health care also used skewed sampling.

How the questions are asked, what information is given prior to the questions, and who was polled, can make a huge difference. Only by seeing the questions (and any prefatory information) and the data set can the merits of the poll be evaluated.

So I searched for a copy of the questions and data backing up the Thomson Reuters poll, but could not find a publicly available link. Yesterday afternoon I e-mailed the person designated by Thomson Reuters to respond to inquiries regarding the poll, and requested either a public link or a copy of the questions and data set.

I received a response today, and Reuters provided me with the specific question asked, and a break down of responses by various categories. This information is embedded below. They also provided the sample via e-mail, which breaks down as follows:

Republican – 857
Democrat – 971
Libertarian – 54
Independent –
791
Other – 47

I have not yet received information in response to my request for the the full series of questions and prefatory information, and I’ll update this post if that information is received.

The information provided by Thomson Reuters was very interesting. The question was not as simple as the press release made it sound: “60 percent of Americans believe a public option should be included in final healthcare legislation.” Here is the question:

For this next section, please rate the statements using a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 means “Strongly Disagree” and 5 means “Strongly Agree”. The higher the number, the more you agree with the statement. You can use any number in between. (READ AND ROTATE)

6a. The quality of healthcare delivered in our country will be better 12 months from now.
6b. It will be easier for people to receive care they need 12 months from now.
6c. The value of care delivered will be better 12 months from now.
6d. The total amount of money your family spends on healthcare will decrease 12 months from now.

7a. Do you believe a “Public Option” (like Medicare for everyone) should be included as part of the final legislation that Congress passes into law?
a. Yes
b. No
c. DK/NS
d. Refused

A few points. In the question, the “public option” was described as “like Medicare for everyone.” Needless to say, none of the public options that are or have been under discussion fit that description.

Second, whereas the other question allowed people to rank the strength of their feelings on a scale of 1-5, the public option question did not provide for any level of nuance. You’re either for it or against it or not sure.

Third, in the results according to Thomson Reuters, 59.9% answered “Yes” and 40.1% answered “No.” Does that mean that no one (or at least fewer than one-tenth of one percent of people) didn’t know or were not sure? That strikes me as very strange.

The result is that this poll, like so many others, is not what it seems. I do not suggest any bad intent on the part of Thomson Reuters, but why not try other questions which presented the public option in a less rosy context? For example, why not ask:

  • Do you believe a “Public Option” (like Medicare for everyone) should be included as part of the final legislation that Congress passes into law if it meant you had to wait for medical procedures?
  • Do you believe a “Public Option” (like Medicare for everyone) should be included as part of the final legislation that Congress passes into law if it meant you had to give up your private insurance?
  • Do you believe a “Public Option” (like Medicare for everyone) should be included as part of the final legislation that Congress passes into law if it meant that government ran the entire health care system?

The question as phrased in the Thomson Reuters poll was not neutral, which seems to be a persistent problem when it comes to polling the public option.

Thomson Reuters PULSE Public Option Survey Question and Data

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Related Posts:
Lying About The Public Option With Polls
Consumer Reports’ Specious Stand On Health Care Reform

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