The Gallup poll that came out Thursday has been widely described as indicating that the health care protests are “working.” This is based on the fact that 34% say the protests make them more sympathetic to the protestors’ viewpoints while only 21% say the protests make them less sympathetic.
But both Nate Silver and David Axelrod point out that this particular question really doesn’t prove much of anything – people who are already in agreement with the protesters views will naturally tend to express sympathy for demonstrations that support their views. As Silver says:
Polls of this nature, however, are notoriously slippery. If there were some protest in favor of a policy that I supported — like expanded stem-cell research — I’d probably tell a pollster that the protest had in fact made me more sympathetic to the cause, even though my mind on the issue was already 100 percent made up and was not going to be swayed. The real question, then, is how many minds are being changed on the issue. And it may not be all that many. Three relevant polls have come out on this subject in August: a Rasmussen poll found some further erosion in support for the bills pending before Congress, but a Gallup poll did not find any further decline in Obama’s approval on health care since mid-July. Nor did a CNN poll find any decline in support for the Democrats’ health package, although that poll is now about a week old.
Let’s face it, we’re all desperate to try to make use of any data that happen to come our way, but there really isn’t a lot one can deduce from this particular question.
The really interesting data in the poll comes when Gallup asks if the following behaviors during a town meeting are better described as “democracy in action” or “an abuse of democracy.”
• “making angry attacks on a health care bill and what it might do”
• “booing when members of congress make statements that the opponents disagree with”
• “Shouting down supporters when they speak in favor of a health care bill
On the first two questions Democrats and Republicans respond in predictably partisan ways – Dems calling them “abuse” while Republicans call them “democracy” Independents, however, lean strongly toward calling them “democracy in action” in the first case (55%-37%) and marginally in the second case (47%-42%).
From a fiercely partisan perspective, this might seem a disappointment, but realistically it’s entirely reasonable. I mean, come on, let’s be realistic – of course making angry attacks on a bill you disagree with is OK in a democracy, as is booing (within bounds).
But the absolutely critical fact shown in the Gallup poll is how the respondents viewed the third behavior, “Shouting down supporters when they speak in favor of a health care bill”.
59% of the American people said it was an “abuse of democracy” compared with only 33% who called it “democracy in action”
54% of independents called it an “abuse of democracy”, compared with only 38% who said it was “democracy in action”
And here’s the real eye-popper:
58% of REPUBLICANS called it an “abuse of democracy” compared to only 38% who called it “democracy in action”
In short, what this poll is showing is that the vast majority of the American people very strongly and profoundly disapprove of the “shout them down – intimidate them” type of tactics the Astroturf firms were circulating and recommending when the town halls started. In fact, it is already possible to see a subtle dialing down of the overtly” bully-boy” approach in the most recent town halls.
So for Dems the key strategic information here is that they should focus their criticism very specifically on the “shouting down” or “bullying” type of tactics and pin that strategy very specifically on the Astroturf firms.
Here’s an example of how this can be expressed:
“It is absolutely healthy and vital that ordinary Americans get the chance to express their views about health care reform – and to express those views as clearly and passionately as they wish. Staunch opponents of health care reform must be given the opportunity to make their voices heard as well as supporters.”
“But when “inside the beltway” Washington lobbying groups opposing health care reform start circulating instructions to “shout down” elected officials when they try to speak and to disrupt town hall meetings before people can express their views, that’s not OK. Those are tactics that have no place in a democracy.”
“The beltway lobbying firms should clearly and explicitly disavow these tactics and directly criticize the people who employ them – not only in a few face-saving press releases but in all of their communications with their supporters. If they don’t, the sincere grass-roots protesters should consider whether these are the kind of organizations with which they want to be associated.”.