Pollster Mark Mellman has a brilliant piece of opinion data analysis, “Winning the Medicare Fight,” up at The Hill. Mellman’s post is of interest, not only for those concerned with political strategy and Medicare policy, but also for anyone interested in how to analyze a poll. Here’s some of Mellman’s nuanced analysis of a recent Gallup poll regarding deficit-reduction through Medicare reform, which was hailed by conservatives:
Gallup’s findings seemingly suggested Republican fears were exaggerated. The pollsters’ analysis noted that “Ryan’s plan includes a complete restructuring of Medicare for people younger than 55.” Nevertheless, to Republicans’ evident glee, Gallup reported, “Pluralities of middle-aged Americans as well as those 65 and older prefer Ryan’s plan to Obama’s.”
Republicans took heart from these findings too quickly. Nowhere does the question explain, or even reference, Ryan’s Medicare plan. Respondents were simply asked which was “the better long-term plan for dealing with the federal budget deficit — the Republican plan put forth by Congressman Paul Ryan or the Democratic plan put forward by President Barack Obama?” Voters dividing evenly on which party is better at dealing with the deficit should surprise no one. Indeed, if these numbers contain any surprise, it is that Democrats perform as well as they do on this traditionally pro-GOP issue.
Mellman mines other polling data to test his argument:
According to a Kaiser poll, 57 percent oppose any reduction in Medicare spending to help reduce the federal deficit, and another 32 percent would countenance only “minor” spending reductions. An ABC/Washington Post poll found 78 percent opposed cuts in Medicare spending to “reduce the national debt.”
However, cautions Mellman,
While Republicans, who marched almost in lockstep in support of the Ryan plan, err grossly in taking solace from the Gallup poll, Democrats too have lessons to learn from this poll and other recent data.
First, shorthand rarely works — and certainly doesn’t work here. Vague references to the “Ryan plan” mean almost nothing to voters.
Similarly opaque references to “vouchers” likewise fail to galvanize public anger. According to the Kaiser poll, just 12 percent have any idea what “premium support” means, and an equally anemic 30 percent claim to know what vouchers are in the context of Medicare. In another test, use of the word “voucher” increased opposition to the Ryan plan by a single point. Even “privatization” fails the test. These terms may rally the informed base, but they carry little meaning to the wider electorate.
Second, some of the concepts Democrats find abhorrent are not quite so loathsome to voters. When Kaiser explained premium support — “people choose their insurance from a list of private health plans … and the government pays a fixed amount toward that cost” — voters divided about evenly between keeping Medicare as it is and adopting that alternative.
Mellman also cites an ABC/WaPo poll indicating that 65 percent of respondents opposed a plan in which people over 65 would get a government check to shop for health insurance in the private sector. He adds that the Kaiser poll found 68 percent of respondents opposed, even when informed of the GOP assertion that it would “reduce the deficit, save Medicare and encourage competition.”
As Mellman concludes,
While neither shorthand nor wonky explanation works, clear, crisp arguments do raise voters’ hackles about the GOP’s Medicare plan. The core message focuses on cutting Medicare benefits and putting insurance-company bureaucrats in charge of seniors’ healthcare…This is a debate Democrats can win decisively, but only with an oft-repeated and carefully honed message in place of shorthand and jargon.
Democratic candidates and campaign workers take note. Meeting this challenge in communications strategy could prove decisive in winning both support from seniors and close elections.