Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let's drill down

Via Blue Lyon, there are poll numbers available from Massachusetts that try to answer the question: Does the result of the Massachusetts Senate race on January 19 mean voters want the Democrats to be more forthrightly Left (aka, progressive) or does it mean voters want the Democrats to be more centrist (aka, move Right)? The poll - commissioned by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and - interviewed 500 people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but voted for Scott Brown on Tuesday; they also interviewed 500 voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but did not vote on Tuesday.

One caveat: I do not entirely understand how these voters were selected. The poll information says:

2774 Obama voters from 2008 who voted Tuesday were reached -- of which 2274 (82%) voted for Democrat Martha Coakley and 500 (18%) voted against her.quote

Assuming the pollsters simply started cold-calling people this seems like a reasonable selection process. However, I do not see similar information on how the 500 homebodies (2008 Obama voters who did not vote on Tuesday) were selected.

The presentation of the poll is a little confusing: the description says Obama voters who voted for Brown were asked a different set of questions than Obama voters who just stayed home but that’s not quite right. Both groups of voters were asked the same questions. The poll results for the two groups are presented in a slightly different order and I assume that reflects the order in which the two groups were asked the questions. Here are my takeaways:

1) Massachusetts has a lot of voters who are not registered as either Democrat or Republican yet it has voted heavily Democratic for a long time leading some to assume that the Independent (or “Unenrolled”) label doesn’t mean much. Nonetheless there does appear to be at least one clear difference between voters registered Democratic and those who are not registered: of the 500 Obama voters who voted for Brown, 423 were Independent; of the 500 Obama voters who just stayed home, 447 were Democrats. Independents could bring themselves to vote for a non-Democrat (whatever their reasons); Democrats could only bring themselves to stay home. The numbers are overwhelming enough that we can speak fairly confidently of the Brown voters as Independents and the homebodies as Democrats. Further, this means the poll breakdowns by party affiliation use woefully small numbers for the Republican and Democrat percentages among Brown voters and for the Republican and Independent percentages among homebodies.

2) Both Obama voters who voted for Brown and Obama voters who stayed home overwhelmingly favor a public option: 82% of Brown voters and 86% of homebodies. I don’t think this is news - I believe previous polls have always shown that a significant majority of people in the country as a whole favor a public option - so it’s interesting to consider why no public option is on the table. My guess - and it is just a guess - it that when it came time to run the numbers no one could figure out how to have a public option that could match private insurance company premiums without a subsidy from the taxpayers. And a subsidy from the taxpayers would blow the idee fixe of budget neutrality out of the water.

3) The poll asked two questions about the Senate version of health care reform: Do you favor or oppose and, if you oppose, do you think it goes too far or not far enough? If you aggregate the numbers for those two questions, here’s what you get:

Favor: 32% Brown voters, 34% homebodies
Oppose, doesn’t go far enough: 17% Brown voters, 23% homebodies
Oppose, goes too far: 11% Brown voters, 3% homebodies
Oppose, not sure if it goes too far or not far enough: 20% Brown voters, 17% homebodies
Not sure if favor or oppose: 20% Brown voters, 23% homebodies

I have no idea what that tells me except that 40% of both groups either aren’t sure whether they oppose it or oppose it but aren’t sure why.

4) The individual mandate is unpopular: 59% of Brown voters and 55% of homebodies oppose it.

5) It’s not clear how important it is to these voters that the Democrats change Republican policies. In answer to the question:

Generally speaking, do you think Democrats in Washington, DC are fighting hard enough to challenge the Republican policies of the Bush years, aren't fighting hard enough to change those policies, or are fighting about right?

the answers (which don’t really match the question) were:

Not enough: 37% Brown voters, 39% homebodies
Too hard: 15% Brown voters, 12% homebodies
About right: 21% Brown voters, 25% homebodies
Not sure: 27% Brown voters, 24% homebodies

That means 37% of both groups think the Democrats are fighting about the right amount or too hard, i.e., don’t need to be doing more to challenge the Republican policies. This is not significantly different from the number who think the Democrats should be fighting harder to change these policies.

6) A surprisingly large number of respondents in both groups answered “Not sure” to a surprisingly large number of questions. This means that some results are hard to interpret. For example, in answer to this question:

What would do more to improve our nation's economic conditions: Decreasing government spending OR tightening government regulation of Wall Street and corporate executives?

a plurality of both groups think tightening regulations for Wall Street and corporate executives (43%, 46%) would do more to help the economy than decreasing government spending (25%, 21%) but so many people answered “Not sure” (32%, 33%) that I don’t know how much that means. On the other hand, people were pretty clear in their answer to this question:

If the Democratic Congress passed a bill that laid down stronger rules of the road for Wall Street and cut bonuses for the executives of companies that received government bailouts, would that make you more likely or less likely to vote Democratic in the 2010 general election?

Now 53% of Brown voters and 56% of homebodies said more likely, while 14% of Brown voters and 5% of homebodies said less likely. (The “No effect” numbers are very close to the “Not sure” numbers in the previous question: 33% of Brown voters, 39% of homebodies.) Does this mean even people who think decreasing government spending would be better for the economy still want the government to tighten up on Wall Street? Or are the answers to the second question being triggered by the “cut bonuses” proposal that wasn’t really in the first question? I suspect the latter but who knows?

Similarly the “Not sure” answer played a big role in questions about how important national health care reform is in deciding how to vote; whether Democrats are more on my side or the side of lobbyists; and - for homebodies - whether Democrats changed Washington and whether Democrats are more on the side of Wall Street or Main Street. Interestingly, a majority of Brown voters said Democrats did not change Washington (52%) and were more on the side of Wall Street (51%) but only a plurality of homebodies said the same (41%, 38%).

All this makes me suspect that there is a mix of progressive (far Left) and populist (tea party) concerns going on here. I wish the poll had included an open-ended question like:

Why did you vote for Obama in 2008 but vote for Brown/not vote in this election?

So what did the Massachusetts election tell us? People are unhappy with the way things are going in Washington. They overwhelmingly favor the public option; they overwhelmingly think neither Brown nor Coakley did a good job representing their economic interests; a solid majority of both groups wants tighter regulation of Wall Street and/or bonus cuts for executives; and a solid majority of both groups opposes the individual mandate. Beyond that, the exact nature of their unhappiness and even more the question of what they would like to see instead is open to debate.


Anonymous said...

I think your conclusions mirror mine. There is a great deal of discontent across the country and a feeling that our "leaders" are ignoring the people.

To address another part of your post, you wrote: when it came time to run the numbers no one could figure out how to have a public option that could match private insurance company premiums without a subsidy from the taxpayers

This is what really got me...The private insurers will get taxpayer subsidies (no loss to profits), but the public option was supposed to exist on premiums alone (with no taxpayer subsidies). How would that be creating an even (and competitive) playing field?

Lots of not sures makes me think that the people polled gave the pollsters an earful along the lines of "it's not as black and white as you are trying to make it." I've been polled before, and I'm never able to just answer Yes or No to questions. It drives me crazy.

Elise said...

I think we're talking about two different kinds of subsidies here. I have up a new post called "Subsidizing the Public Option" where I walk through my thoughts on this.