The unreliability of public opinion data

I love public opinion surveys– heck, I wouldn't have tenure without them, but part of loving them is knowing their limits, and when it comes to the health care debate, they are very limited.  The public simply lacks any coherence on the matter.  Ezra Klein brings to light some recent polling data:

I want to show you two graphs charting the popularity of health-care
reform. The first summarizes the Republican position. It's a chart from tallying surveys asking whether you support or oppose the
health-care reform bill.


Unpopular, right? The second chart summarizes the Democratic position on this question: It tallies recent responses to polls asking about the component pieces of the health-care bill:



Health-care reform is unpopular. But if you actually tell people
what's in the health-care reform bill, then it becomes quite popular. A
recent Newsweek poll
found the same thing: "The majority of Americans are opposed to
President Obama's health-care reform plan — until they learn the

Obviously, this disconnect is one of the more frustrating features about what's going on.  Clearly, it serves Republican interests to keep people from actually understanding what's in these bills.   Ezra continues:

You can spin this information in a lot of different directions: The GOP
has mounted a huge disinformation campaign. People are stupid. The
polls are biased in one direction or another. The media covers conflict
and ignores substance. Pick your favorite.

All true, as is his explanation, which you can click on over to read.  The take-away for me, though, is you really can hardly trust opinion polls on complicated political issues. Therefore, of course, politicians (that means you spineless Democrats in Congress afraid to vote for this) should not be so damn beholden to them. 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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