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Misleading Polls and the Ryan Plan

2:00 PM, May 9, 2011 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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There is an awful lot of rampant speculation right now, much of it masquerading as confirmed fact, about how well the House Republican’s proposed Medicare reforms are going over with the American public. But there is very little hard evidence. There have only been two polls, to my knowledge, that have described and then asked about the Paul Ryan-authored Republican plan since President Obama invited Ryan to sit in the front row for his April 13th deficit reduction speech, during which Obama lambasted Ryan’s proposal. 

Rep. Paul Ryan addresses Wisconsin Army National Guard soldiers.

Rep. Paul Ryan addresses Wisconsin Army National Guard soldiers.

That was the same speech in which Obama offered a “framework” to save “$4 trillion” in deficit spending. But his “framework,” were it actually a budget, would actually increase deficit spending over the next decade by about $1 trillion more than under current law — and current law already puts us on course to spend about $7 trillion that we do not have. His proposed deficit spending, moreover, is on top of the $14 trillion in national debt that we already have on the books, roughly a third of which has been accrued since Obama’s election.   

The House Republicans’ proposed Medicare reforms are part of their 2012 budget, which would reduce deficit spending by $4.4 trillion — and 46 percent — in relation to Obama’s budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  

The two polls that have summarized and then asked about the GOP proposal since April 13th appear to show, more than anything, that at this very early stage in a battle that will likely extend until the next election, the actual wording of the question makes a tremendous amount of difference. 

Quinnipiac asks the question as follows:

“A) Medicare should remain as it is today, with a defined set of benefits for seniors. OR B) Medicare should be changed so that seniors who join Medicare in 2022 receive a fixed amount of money from the government each year that they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy.”

Meanwhile, CBS News/New York Times asks the question as follows:

“In order to reduce the budget deficit, it has been proposed that Medicare should be changed from a program in which the government pays doctors and hospitals for treating seniors to a program in which the government helps seniors purchase private health insurance. Would you approve or disapprove of changing Medicare in this way?” 

The differences between these two questions may appear subtle, but they are actually substantial. First, the CBS News/New York Times poll reminds respondents that the impetus for change is a desire “to reduce the budget deficit,” while Quinnipiac asks the question more or less in a vacuum. Second, a program “in which the government helps seniors purchase private health insurance” sounds different than a program in which seniors are left “to shop for their own private health insurance.” The former sounds like the government will oversee the process and provide assistance as necessary; the latter sounds like the government will cut a check and then send seniors on their way.  Third, Quinnipiac’s reference to “a fixed amount of money” is more misleading than informative, as I will discuss later.

In this light, it is not overly surprising that 60 percent of respondents oppose the Republican proposal as Quinnipiac describes it, while only 41 percent oppose it as CBS News and the New York Times described it. And that’s true even though only 25 percent of the respondents in the CBS News/New York Times poll are Republicans. (Quinnipiac doesn’t say explicitly, but it looks like its sample is pretty evenly split by party.) 

Perhaps the best evidence that the way in which Quinnipiac asks the question has a lot to do with the answers is this: The way Quinnipiac characterizes the proposed GOP reforms, fewer than half of all Republicans favor them.

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