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Republicans May Need ‘Exit Strategy’ From Medicare Plan

Is Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan unpopular?

Most Democrats, especially after the results in the special election in New York last week, take this for granted. But some conservatives make the contrary case, and it’s not one without merit. The Weekly Standard’s Jeffrey H. Anderson, for example, finds that when questions about Mr. Ryan’s budget are phrased in certain ways — in ways which he considers to be more accurate — they can draw plurality support. And as we noted last month, a Gallup poll conducted in April found voters about evenly split when asked whether they preferred Mr. Ryan’s or President Obama’s approach to the budget.

The question about whether Mr. Ryan’s plan is popular right now, however, is not terribly important. Instead, what matters is the impact it could have with voters next November — after both sides have exhausted their opportunity to make arguments about it. When viewed in this way, the budget could be problematic for Republican candidates.

Take last month’s poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, for example. It asked about a plan which, like Mr. Ryan’s, would change Medicare to a system of private insurance plans, with the government providing a voucher toward the purchase of care. Initially, support for the plan split about evenly, with 46 percent preferring the changes and 50 percent preferring to keep Medicare as it is. That’s not such a bad result for Republicans.

The problem is what happened when Kaiser read different arguments about the plan, arguments which resemble those which voters will hear over the next 18 months. To the 50 percent who were opposed to the plan originally, Kaiser recited a series of arguments that resemble those that Mr. Ryan himself is making: That the plan would reduce the deficit, that the plan would increase choice and that it would save Medicare from fiscal insolvency. Some respondents, 17 percent of those who were originally opposed to the plan, changed their mind after hearing these arguments.

Meanwhile, to the voters who originally supported the plan, Kaiser read another set of arguments, those which resemble the ones that Democrats are making. They said that the plan would increase health care costs and reduce benefits, would do too much to empower private insurance companies, and would “eliminate traditional Medicare.” Upon hearing these arguments, 42 percent of voters who originally supported the plans changed their minds and said they were no longer in favor of it.

Democrats, in other words, seem to have the more persuasive side of the argument — their case was more than twice as likely to change a voter’s mind.

The Kaiser poll is not an isolated example. A poll last month from Democracy Corps, a Democratic firm, inquired about Mr. Ryan’s overall approach to the budget (not just the Medicare provisions) in somewhat the same fashion. Initially, a 48-33 plurality of likely voters supported the plan. After being read a set of arguments both for and against it, however, a number of voters changed their mind and the plan was opposed 51-44.

Republican polling on the plan, according to Politico’s Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman, shows the same pattern:

No matter how favorably pollsters with the Tarrance Group or other firms spun the bill in their pitch — casting it as the only path to saving the beloved health entitlement for seniors — the Ryan budget’s approval rating barely budged above the high 30s or its disapproval below 50 percent, according to a Republican operative familiar with the presentation.

If these poll results are right, they represent a lot of danger to Republicans because they suggest that voters’ assessments of the Medicare proposal are not yet fully “priced in” to their views of the parties more broadly. Right now, most people aren’t paying all that much attention to the budget debates or to domestic politics more generally. But they will tune in at some point between now and next November, and when they do they may find that the Republicans’ approach to the budget is not to their liking.

It is in this context that interpretations of last week’s special election in New York become more useful. It essentially represented an acceleration of political time, with voters in this one corner of the country hearing and acting upon arguments that they would not ordinarily begin to consider until late next year.

Was the special election a “referendum” on Medicare? In a literal sense, perhaps not; only about one-fifth of voters considered it to be their most important issue.

Because politics operates on the margins, however, that is potentially a large enough group to swing the political environment from being quite favorable to Republicans to quite favorable to Democrats. So the question is whether the strong result for Democrats in fact reflected a changed national environment or instead was due to idiosyncratic local circumstances.

It would be difficult to prove either proposition. Even in regular November elections, when the overall political environment (such as reflected by the national popular vote or generic Congressional ballot) is a known quantity, the results in individual House races can vary quite a bit from district to district. And they can vary even more in special elections, when turnout is lower and the broader political environment is not yet locked in.

But the results were more consistent with the hypothesis that the Medicare proposals are in fact problematic for Republicans than the competing hypothesis that they aren’t.

Neither the polling on the Medicare issue nor the results in the special election are all that compelling unto themselves. Taken together, however (evaluated through the lens of Bayesian probability) they begin to make a fairly powerful case. A third piece of complementary evidence, arguably, is the generic Congressional ballot, which has shifted in the direction of Democrats in recent weeks.

Republicans, as I’ve noted, don’t have the luxury of waiting until all the evidence is in before making some key strategic choices that could profoundly affect next year’s elections. Suppose there is an 80 percent probability that the Medicare proposals are a significant problem for Republicans and 20 percent chance that they aren’t. That might not meet an academic standard of statistical significance. But clearly, there is downside for Republicans if they make the wrong bet — acting as though Mr. Ryan’s proposal is acceptable to swing voters when it isn’t, or vice versa — so they have to play the odds.

If Republicans determine that they need an “exit strategy” from Mr. Ryan’s proposals, it could produce significant collateral damage. All but 4 Republicans in the House, and all but 5 in the Senate, have already voted for the plan. An increasing number of their Presidential candidates, including Tim Pawlenty last week, have lent their endorsement to it, if not always without equivocation.

Still, staying the course has the potential to muddy their message on issues ranging from the national debt to the country’s newest entitlement program, Barack Obama’s health care bill — precisely those issues that had initially appeared to play to their strengths. Conversely, although Republicans have endured a difficult month, economic indicators over the past several weeks have come in below economists’ expectations, while future forecasts have been revised downward, creating further vulnerability for President Obama and the Democrats and perhaps arguing for a renewed Republican emphasis on Main Street concerns like the labor and housing markets.

So if extricating themselves from Mr. Ryan’s plan might come at a significant cost for Republicans, it could also produce significant benefits.

Republicans are not without standing to argue that the Medicare proposals are not all that unpopular, that the special election was anomalous, or both. But there is mounting evidence to the contrary, and they ignore it at their own peril.

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