The ACA and the Flaw in Public Polls

The ACA and the Flaw in Public Polls November 24, 2014

One of the things you notice in all of the polling data about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is that the overwhelming majority of people support most of the actual things it does while a smaller majority still oppose the bill. A new analysis of that data points at an explanation:

Jon Krosnick, Wendy Gross, and colleagues at Stanford and Kaiser ran large surveys to measure public understanding of the ACA and how it was associated with approval of the law. They found that accurate knowledge about what’s in the bill varied with party identification: Democrats understood the most and liked the law the most, independents less, and Republicans understood still less and liked the law the least. However, attitudes were not just tribal. Within each party, the more accurate your knowledge of the law, the more you liked it.

Krosnick and colleagues found that most people favor most of the elements of the ACA, but not everyone recognized that these elements were all in the plan. Many people also have false beliefs about the plan. For example, only 42% of Americans correctly understood that the law does not provide free treatment for illegal aliens. Only 21% of Americans approve of this imaginary feature of the plan.

This suggests that if the public understood the ACA perfectly, support for the law would be higher. Based on their model for how knowledge about the ACA is associated with approval for the law, Krosnick and colleagues project that in the unlikely case in which the public had perfect understanding of the law, “the proportion of Americans who favor the bill might increase from the current level of 32% to 70%.”

This is why I don’t really take public polls seriously when it comes to complex issues. Only a small percentage of those polled could possibly understand the issue with the depth required to have an informed opinion. What such polls really measure is the effectiveness of the two sides in selling a story to the public. Such stories are often built on lies about the data and dishonest framing of the narrative. This becomes obvious when you take a poll on whether people support the Affordable Care Act vs whether they support Obamacare. The numbers for the former are higher than the latter.

Polls on such subjects don’t measure public support, they measure public ignorance.


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