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Massachusetts Liked Universal Health Care Before It Voted Against It

John Sides has a good catch from the Washington Post/Harvard poll of Massachusetts special election voters. By a 68-27 margin, voters in last Tuesday’s election supported the universal health care law in Massacuhsetts; this included a majority of Scott Brown voters! But these same voters opposed the Democratic health care plan, which is quite similar to the Massacuhsetts law, by a 43-48 margin.

What accounts for the discrepancy? There are basically three* things:

First, precisely because they’re happy with the Massachusetts law, a lot of voters didn’t see the upside in supporting a national health care plan that might usurp theirs. Whereas 44 percent of voters in this poll thought that the health care bill would make the country better off (versus 40 percent saying worse off), just 23 percent said the same for Massachusetts in particular (versus 37 percent worse off).

Secondly, a lot of objections are to the process rather than the policy substance. In an open-ended question among voters who said that health care was a key determinant in their vote, 19 percent of all voters and 30 percent of Scott Brown voters cited a procedural reason, such as “dealmaking”, “closed doors”, “lack of transparency”, “partisanship”, “moving too fast”, etc.

Thirdly, although there were no questions that quizzed voters on their knowledge of the policy substance in this particular poll, we can probably infer that at least some Massachusetts voters are misinformed about the Democratic health care plan, as is quite manifest in national surveys on the subject.

Make no mistake: a lot of voters in Massachusetts were speaking their minds about health care. The evidence is much stronger that this was a vote about health care than the Obama agenda in general; in fact, special election voters in Massachusetts approved of Barack Obama 61-37**.

Still, it’s important to keep in mind exactly what those voters were saying about health care, as the message was rather mixed. And Democrats can take some comfort in the fact that, several years after a near-universal health care program in Massachusetts was implemented, it is overwhelmingly popular with that state’s voters.


* Although I’m reluctant to cite polling conducted by activist groups, even activist groups whose aims I generally agree with, if you buy the PCCC/ poll then a fourth potential reason is that Massachusetts voters thought the Democrats’ health care plan didn’t go far enough.

** This is a completely separate point, but pollsters who are bragging about having nailed the special election but which projected Obama approval in the 40s among the likely voter electorate may have gotten the right answer for the wrong reasons.

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