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Are The Health Care Protests Working? And Are Liberals Helping Them?

It’s been interesting to digest the interaction between liberal and conservative blogs on the issue of the health care protests. If you take a look at a service like Memorandum, you’ll find that stories about the protests have almost always been the lede in the blogosphere over the course of the past 10-14 days. There are daily, and sometimes even hourly, ebbs and flows in who seems to be pushing the stories — conservative blogs one day, liberal blogs the next. But both sides seem to feel as though they have something to gain. Quite frankly, I’ve felt a little lost here. The coverage has been so intensely partisan on both sides that it’s hard to get any real idea about what the protests are really like on the ground: who is protesting, how many are protesting, what they’re protesting about (the answer is not as obvious it might seem), in which sorts of districts the protesters live, and how all of this is affecting the views of average Americans on the health care reform bills pending before Congress (and more importantly, the views of the 535 Congressmen who will ultimately have to vote on the package).

The closest thing we have so far to objective evidence is a Gallup poll that came out today. The poll finds that 34 percent of Americans say the protests have made them more sympathetic to the protesters’ views, 21 percent less sympathetic, and 46 percent unsure or indifferent.

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.

Still, there are some good numbers for the protesters, like the fact that independents, by a 35:16 plurality, said the protests were making them more sympatathetic to the cause. And I have no doubt that the protests are tending to make views on health care reform more entrenched.

Ultimately, while the upside is debatable, I certainly don’t see much downside to conservative blogs in advancing stories about the protests. For liberal blogs, the matter is a little trickier. On the one hand, some amount of pushback is necessary — you don’t want this to be a one-sided debate. On the other hand, the pushback is certainly propelling the protests — which are being carried out by ultimaetly a very small fraction of the electorate — further into the public spotlight, which may encourage the mainstream media to cover them. So maybe on CNN, instead of getting a 2-minute, largely sympathetic story on the protests for every hour of coverage, you’re instead getting a 6-minute, somewhat-to-mostly sympathetic story on the protests (that seemed to be about the ratio when I was watching the network during an airport delay today). It’s not clear to me that this is such a good trade-off for liberals.

At the end of the day, health care reform is liable to succeed or fail based on the extent to which Americans — and the Congressmen they elect — are informed about the true nature of the bills pending before the House and Senate. We’re in a somewhat peculiar situation in that the idea of health care reform overall remains popular, and moreover, the views toward most of the particular elements that are actually contained within the health care packages (like the public option or the surtax on the wealthy) are also pretty popular. And yet, when you ask people about the “plan” being contemplated by the Congress and/or the President, it is not very popular. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of which are the Democrats’ fault — they haven’t settled on a particular plan, and the President’s messaging, although better of late, has not been terribly effective.

But the real upside to the protests is that they perpetuate misinformation about the Democrats’ bills. Forget the birthers — I want to know how many Americans believe in the “death panels”. (I also want to know whether Chuck Grassley, since he seems to be one of them, would accept the following trade: Democrats will drop the “death panels” if you’ll drop your opposition to the public option.)

Ultimately, the message that Democrats need to be getting across is not that the protesters are protesting in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, but that they’re protesting, in some substantial measure, about the wrong things: that what they seem to think is contained in the health care package doesn’t necessarily match the reality.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.