After months of political wrangling over health care reform why couldn't our elected leaders just have just given the people what they want? That's why we have public opinion polls, right? Well ... it turns out that the public's opinion isn't as clear as pols might have liked, and had everything to do with when and what they were asked.
After so much argument, why couldn't the politicians just give the people what they want? [LAUGHS] I mean, it was so obvious.
MAN: All I know is that the American people are adamantly opposed to this health bill.
MAN: Americans want health care reform, by an overwhelming majority.
MAN: We know from the polling that’s been done in this country how the American people feel.
BOB GARFIELD: The problem, of course, is that Americans’ expressed desires had everything to do with when and what the pollsters asked, not to mention the words they chose to ask it. At the beginning of March, Gallup surveyed the public’s opinion of health care reform. It found that 45 percent were for it, 48 percent against it and 7 percent had no opinion. But if you dug a little deeper, you found that the second reason people gave for why they were against it was that it, quote, “doesn't address real problems.” And the third was that they simply, quote, “need more information.” Not exactly the open-and-shut case the critics and advocates needed to claim they were doing the people’s will. And the Gallup Poll was just one of many that raised more questions than answers. Gary Langer directs polling for ABC News. Gary, welcome to the show.
GARY LANGER: Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You wrote that, quote, “It’s been a simple matter for just about anyone to mischaracterize public opinion on health care reform.” What would you say are the greatest sins of mischaracterization?
GARY LANGER: Well, claiming that we have large majorities of Americans either in support of or in opposition to health care reform would be a mischaracterization. There are elements of reform that are popular. There are other elements that are off-putting. Put it together, you’re getting about an even split, and it’s been that way for months.
BOB GARFIELD: Did the GOP kind of lump into their notion of public dissatisfaction not only those against too much government spending but those who saw the bill as not going far enough?
GARY LANGER: I don't know what the Republican Party is doing with the data that it’s presenting, but I can tell you that the poll that I've seen that’s had the largest level of opposition to reform, 59 percent, includes 13 percent within that 59 who say it’s not liberal enough.
BOB GARFIELD: But if you leave out that little detail, you can say “overwhelmingly opposed” and technically be telling the truth. I use the word “technically” advisedly.
GARY LANGER: Well, you can. At the same time, that was the CNN poll, and the pollster who did it took the trouble to ask that follow-up question and to report it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, what about the media? Have we permitted scoundrels to, you know, misrepresent the true breadth of public opinion?
GARY LANGER: Look, the news media have long indulged themselves in the lazy luxury of being both data-hungry and math-phobic. Anytime a newsmaker, an interview subject, a politician, a pundit cites data, we really need to hear where that data came from. There have been politicians and pundits on both sides of this issue who have tried to claim the mantle of popularity. That’s true on almost any issue. It is important, to the extent we can, to call them on it. We have to overcome this notion that life can be boiled down, in, in this case, to a single number. There’s more complexity there. You know, any other news that comes in over the transom, we check it out before we report it because that’s our responsibility. If it’s polling data, it’s too sexy, it’s too compelling. We're all English majors, and we just want to pick it up and use it. We need to stop and check this stuff out too. That is happening more at some good news organizations, but not enough at enough of them.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Gary. Well, thank you so much.
GARY LANGER: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Gary Langer is director of polling for ABC News.