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Liberal Website Helpfully Tests Messages Against Vulnerable Democrat, Finds Them Wanting

The website FireDogLake has commissioned a new survey to ask the constituents of Democrat Vic Snyder in the Arkansas 2nd district, one of the most conservative to have voted for health care reform, about about their opinion of the individual mandate. The survey fails to provide context about the individual mandate, and arguably biases the respondent against it through its choice of question wording and question order. Although the survey finds Snyder in a very tough position, it shows little evidence for a further decrease if an individual mandate is adopted as part of health care reform. Let’s go through the survey in detail.

1. Do you approve or disapprove of the job Barack Obama is doing as President?
(Approve 33, Disapprove 66)

2. If there were an election of US House of Representatives today, and the only two candidates on the ballot were Democrat Vic Snyder and Republican Tim Griffin, who would you vote for?
(Snyder 39, Griffin 56)

This is great news! For Vic Snyder!

3. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the quality of the health care you receive?
(Satisfied 79, Dissatisfied 18)

4. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with what you have to pay when you need health care?
(Satisfied 64, Dissatisfied 34)

Most people are happy with the health care coverage they receive … that finding has been shown in poll after poll. And it’s one reason why the bill has been a tough sell for Democrats. The number of people who are too sick and/or too poor to get health care constitute a minority, and an extremely disempowered minority.

But asking people to focus on their own experience with health care right out of the gate is potentially a little biasing, as it gets them in the mindset that there’s no need to change the status quo. If you had asked, for example, what they think about the health care situation overall in America, you might be getting significantly different responses to the questions you asked about later on.

5. There are many pieces to the health care reform law that is being considered by Congress. One change, called the individual mandate, would require every American to carry health insurance, whether they want insurance or not. Are you familiar with this piece of the legislation?
(Yes 75, No 23)

6. Is it a good idea or a bad idea to require Americans to carry health insurance?
(Good Idea 36, Bad Idea 58)

Nothing too bad here, but the phrase “whether they want insurance or not”, versions of which they’ve used before, is redundant and argumentative.

7. Under one proposal, if a person does not carry health insurance from a private insurance company, they would be fined up to 2% of their income. Is this fair, or unfair?
(Fair 17, Unfair 76)

8. Thinking about the proposal that requires everyone to either carry private health insurance or be fined, are you strongly in favor, somewhat in favor, somewhat opposed or strongly opposed?
(Favor 33, Oppose 61 — Strongly Oppose 45)

It’s fine to mention the fine. But it’s perhaps not so fine to mention the fine without providing any additional context. Why is there a fine? Well, because otherwise people will game the system and cause everyone else’s premiums to go up by 30 or 40 percent. What’s fair about that? But of course there’s no effort to provide that context.

The choice of the fair/unfair phrasing is also a bit unusual and some pollsters would avoid it for being emotionally loaded. This is getting pretty close to asking: “This bill would raise your taxes, dude! — Is that fair or unfair?”. How do you expect that people are going to respond when you ask a question like that?

9. Would you prefer Representative Vic Snyder to vote… for the version of the health care law that includes the requirement to carry private health insurance, to vote for a version of health care reform that does NOT include this requirement, or to vote against any health care bill?
(For Bill With Requirement 23, For Bill Without Requirement 27, Against Any Bill 44)

I’m not sure this bolsters their argument at all; the plurality is against any health care reform bill, and among those that aren’t, opinion is about evenly split — even though they’ve already presented the mandate in a negative light.

Of course it would be great if we didn’t have to fine people who didn’t buy health insurance, but that would cause the rest of the bill to become very different in a way that would be politically and fiscally untenable.

10. If Vic Snyder votes to pass the version of the health care law that DOES require every American to carry private health insurance, does your opinion of Snyder go up, go down, or stay the same?
(Goes Up 11, Goes Down 58, Stays the Same 29)

We get it! People don’t like the individual mandate — at least not when it’s presented to them in this fashion. But taking #9 and #10 together, it would seem that most of this opposition has to do with the overall health care reform bill, and not the mandate itself.

11. If Vic Snyder votes to pass the version of the health care law that DOES require every American to carry private health insurance, and in return brings additional federal money to Arkansas’ 2nd congressional district, does your opinion of Snyder go up, go down or stay the same?
(Goes Up 15, Goes Down 49, Stays the Same 34)

This is kind of a pointless question. If it were just a matter of FDL wasting its money, I certainly wouldn’t care. But do you really want to ask a confusing, 47-word question when you’re using a robopoll and have enough trouble keeping people on the phone as is? A good general rule of thumb is that a robopollster shouldn’t ask a question that would require a human interviewer to pause for breath.

12. Assume Vic Snyder votes to pass the version of the health care law that DOES require every American to carry private health insurance. If there were an election for US House of Representatives and the only two candidates on the ballot were Democrat Vic Snyder and Republican Tim Griffin, who would you vote for?
(Snyder 35, Griffin 58)

So, for all that work, the poll shows a whopping 4-point decline in Snyder’s poll numbers, and a 2-point increase in Griffin’s — not even outside of the margin of error. We don’t know how much of that has to do with opposition to the mandate versus the balance of the bill since the poll doesn’t unpack them — they could have asked an additional question or two to tease this out, but they didn’t.

And that 4-point decline — which may or may not be statistically significant and which may or may not have anything to with the individual mandate — comes only after they’d asked five or six questions in a row that framed the mandate in a negative light, and also reminded people for no particular reason about just happy they are with their coverage in the status quo — all while using robopolling technology that was never really designed to ask complex sets of policy questions like these.

Great work, guys!

Is this supposed to be an impressive finding? If anything, it suggests that the downside to Republican argumentation about the mandate is pretty limited — even in a world where the other side doesn’t get the favor of arguing back.

But perhaps it will impress Snyder into not voting for a health care bill at all (Snyder’s opponent has already tweeted about the results). That’s the only effect it seemingly could have, because as tough a load as the health care bill has become for a Democrat like Snyder, Nancy Pelosi is not about to ask him to go back to his district after having voted for a mandate-less bill that would raise premiums by 30 percent.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.