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Is Public Opinion on Health Care Locked In?

A prominent pollster wrote me yesterday with the sentiment that “the battle for public opinion [on health care] is over”, adding that he thought that the Democrats had come up short. We’ll consider that statement in a moment — but first, let’s take a look at where the health care numbers stand after Barack Obama’s speech last week. Did the President, in fact, receive a boost in support?

The short answer is probably yes, for now, although not a terribly large one, and not without some ambiguity. Here, we’ve looked at all polls that were conducted after the speech, and compare them against the most recent poll that each pollster had conducted before the speech. We see an average increase of about 2-3 points for the Democrats’ health care plan itself, and more like 4-5 points for Obama’s handling of health care. (We also list polls for that have been conducted since the President’s speech but for which no recent comparison is available — like the poll that the terrific Ann Selzer is now conducting for Bloomberg — but place them “below the line” so that a more apples-to-applies comparison is available.)

Caveats abound. Obama’s speech was not the only thing impacting public opinion on health care over this period, and both the “before” and “after” polls were conducted at slightly different intervals. Rasmussen, for instance, found a fairly sharp bounce — 7 or 8 points — in support for the President’s plan which then suddenly dissipated, to the point where they now have the proposal being slightly less popular than it had been originally. The degree of movement was unusual for Rasmussen polls, which are generally quite stable. I’m not convinced, I guess, that the contours of public sentiment on health care are really quite that steep — bounces often fade, but their half-life is usually measured in weeks, not days. I think there’s some random noise in their data, in other words. We’ll know more, naturally, after more pollsters weigh in on health care over the next couple of weeks. See Charles Franklin for more detail on the current trendlines.

For now, though, the battle for public opinion on health care appears to have been more fought to a draw than lost. The average poll on the health care plan since the President’s speech shows 45.7 percent in favor, and 47.4 percent opposed. The average poll on Obama’s handling of health care shows 47.5 percent in favor, and 46.3 percent opposed. That’s about as close to a tie as it gets. And that may be a psychologically important distinction for many members of Congress. There’s certainly not any tailwind of public support behind health care reform — that was squandered many months ago. But it’s not clear that they’re running into a headwind either — particularly since many of these polls also revealed shifts in the strength of health care sentiments, with the number of voters strongly opposed decreasing, and the number strongly in favor increasing, although the former almost certainly remains greater than the latter.

I agree with the pollster, however, that the numbers are liable to be fairly stubborn from this point forward. Both sides have really fired all their bullets here. Obama gave his big speech. The Democrats have also probably outmaneuvered the Republicans on maintaining the appearance of bipartisanship — although to what ultimate end, I don’t know. On the other hand, the public remains confused and skeptical over the details of health care reform, in ways that it is probably too late to reverse. The Republicans have played the socialism card, the death panels card, the deficits card, and pretty much everything else in their arsenal. The town halls, mercifully for Democrats, are over. Perhaps Republicans can come up with one or two more effective attack lines. Perhaps Obama can counter back with some high-exposure television appearances (like he’ll be doing this Sunday) and perhaps — perhaps — a fairly low-key address from the Oval Office in a few weeks, when the health care bills are on the verge of being voted on by the Congress. I do think the Democrats have learned something (learned it the hard way and at great cost) about how not to market health care reform.

But I don’t see the numbers shifting much. They are what they are — and the ball is in Congress’s court. And the Democrats there might be wise to think more about how popular the health care plan might be after it passes — in 2010, 2012, 2016, 2020 — than where it stands right now. How they resolve their remaining differences over health care — in particular, the level of subsidies provided to middle-income families — could matter a great deal there.

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