Polls on ObamaCare mislead

We Republicans are at it again.

During primary season, in an all-out effort to appeal to the red-meat tastes of our base, we exaggerate our ideological positions so clumsily that we create unnecessary problems for the November election. For the past few electoral cycles, the issue of immigration has been the best (or worst) example of this. To prove that we’re tough on illegal entry, we inadvertently suggest to all Hispanics, even those here perfectly legally, that we loathe Latinos. But in this cycle, ObamaCare-bashing could supplant immigration as our party’s most mishandled issue. Given that the Supreme Court will keep this issue before voters into the summer, and the ensuing chatter could extend the debate through Election Day, this could drive some swing voters back into the arms of a floundering president.

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What emboldens too many Republicans are the glitzy top-line numbers from polls. One of the favorite barometers for Republicans, the Rasmussen Poll, reported only last week on its latest survey, taken May 17-18, that found 56 percent of 1,000 likely voters polled nationwide favoring outright repeal of the measure while just 39 percent oppose repeal.

Unfortunately, the issue might not be framed satisfactorily for most voters as a simple yes/no dichotomy. Democrats won’t take defeat on healthcare without a fight, and my best guess is that they’ll turn this into a multiple-choice issue that benefits their side. Consider a recent March 24-25 CNN/ORC study of the matter. Like Rasmussen, their top-line dichotomy favors repeal: Fifty percent of adults oppose Obama’s plan while just 43 percent favor it. But when the pollsters approach the issue from three perspectives, interviewing the very same respondents, outright opposition waned. The CNN pollsters, pivoting off the Supreme Court’s deliberations, asked whether justices should leave the healthcare law as is, overturn only some provisions or overturn all provisions. Though half oppose the plan, just 30 percent want to overturn it all. The plurality, 43 percent, wants merely to reject some of ObamaCare’s blunders.

Other polls are finding much the same. A March McClatchy-Marist Poll finds just 34 percent of American adults behind full repeal. A Bloomberg poll taken by Selzer, also in March, indicates that only 37 percent favor immediate repeal. A plurality wants to see how it works and then make modifications. A March ABC News/Washington Post poll says that just 43 percent of Americans favor complete rejection of Obama’s plan. Fifty-one percent want to either throw out the individual mandate only (25 percent) or keep the whole law (26 percent). In each of these polls, offering some sort of middle-ground hedge leaves outright repeal short of a majority, usually far short.

There are several factors that leave Republicans favoring absolute repeal with a weak hand. For one thing, there is no sense of a Republican alternative. The most recent poll I could find offering a GOP alternative could find only 18 percent supporting that option. This survey, taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation in late February, offered myriad choices, including outright repeal with no replacement (23 percent), keeping the law as is (19 percent) and expanding the law (28 percent, the plurality winner). The lesson seems to be that the more fragmented the choices get, the smaller the coalition rallying behind outright repeal.

Thinking ahead to the endgame, Republicans don’t want to find themselves cast as apologists for restoring the old system. Yes, I know that healthcare insurers and providers eventually bought into Obama’s plan, but if it is completely rejected, we’ll see Democrats exploit consumer anger over Big Health’s past abuses like unreasonable claim rejections, telling cancer victims they’re uninsurable, and raising premiums every year. If Republicans get tagged with blame for reinstating all that, it could get ugly at the polls in November.

Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.