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Why is the Washington Post Testing Republican Messages on Health Care?

Get your Drudge Sirens blaring!:

After months of cordial relations between the industry and the White House, Obama’s comments were the sharpest to date and come at a time when there is widespread debate and confusion over what the public wants. One of the reasons is the complexity of the issue, something not easily captured in a poll question.

Survey questions that equate the public option approach with the popular, patient-friendly Medicare system tend to get high approval, as do ones that emphasize the prospect of more choices. But when framed with an explicit counterargument, the idea receives a more tepid response. In the new Post-ABC poll, 62 percent support the general concept, but when respondents were told that meant some insurers would go out of business, support dropped sharply, to 37 percent.

Actually, I don’t have any particular problem with probing the depth of support by providing the respondent in your poll with an opposition message. This poll does suggest that opinion on the public option — which Americans may not know all that much about — is relatively malleable.

What I do have a problem with, however, is testing one side’s message but not the other’s. How about giving the people opposed to the public option a Democratic message about cost control?

It turns out that another organization, the Kaiser Family Foundation, did just this in their April tracking poll. They gave people who said they liked the public option two Republican messages — one which mirrored the Washington Post’s language on competition, and another about single payer. The unfair competition message did better, and picked off 45 percent of those who had initially supported the public option. That brings support for the public option down to 32 percent — actually lower than the Washington Post’s figure.

But Kaiser also tested two Democratic messages to people who initially said they opposed the public option. The stronger of those two messages — one about cost containment — converted 40 percent of the opposition. That brought support for the public option up to 78 percent.

What would be even better is if the pollster gave both sets of messages, read them in a random order, and then probed again on the public option question. That’s the way the debate plays out in the real world. People who support the public option might hear things that cause them to question their support — but they’ll also hear things that reinforce it (like the President’s remarks from yesterday). The same goes for people initially opposed to the public option.

My guess is that when this process in fact takes place in the real world, overall support will be about unchanged. On the one hand, the pro-public option position, since it’s initially more popular, has more ground to lose. On the other hand, the Congressional Republicans aren’t very good messengers, and Obama is. Maybe the public option will lose a couple of points of support — I doubt it will lose more than that unless Obama pulls a Sanford and disappears.

But the Post’s poll, and the accompanying article, seem like less of an effort to report on reality and more of an effort to create a new one.

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