Conflicting public sentiment presents another challenge for healthcare comms

Polls, much like Shakespeare said of biblical references, can be used to support just about every side in the current healthcare debate.

Polls, much like Shakespeare said of biblical references, can be used to support just about every side in the current healthcare debate.

Legislative strategists will soon learn – if they haven't already – that Americans are of two minds on the issue. They believe the system needs fundamental change, but are happy with their own medical care. They're willing to allow government a bigger role in cutting costs and expanding coverage, but fear the implications of more government intervention.

PR pros working on this issue must understand this dichotomy, and how it plays out in polling. Building an advocacy message on the thin reed of an isolated survey statistic, without knowing how it relates to the wider context of voter attitudes, can be a dangerous communications strategy.

For example, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll found 57% of US adults are dissatisfied with the overall healthcare system in the country, yet 83% are satisfied with the quality of care they receive. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed support a government health insurance option (New York Times/CBS News poll), but 63% are concerned about the impact of more government on the quality of care.

The dynamics of public opinion are more complex than each side's talking points are ready to admit. A good example: Are voters willing to pay more taxes for universal medical coverage?

The Times/CBS poll reveals that 57% of adults would be willing to pay “higher taxes so that all Americans have health insurance.” But a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, taken at about the same time, shows that while 62% say it would be acceptable to raise taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year to fund a healthcare plan, 70% say it is unacceptable to raise taxes “on all people.”

Though 53% say they generally approve of President Obama's handling of healthcare (Washington Post/ABC News poll), only a third endorse his approach (WSJ/NBC poll). In that poll, three out of 10 Americans are undecided, waiting for details.

When provided details, support for Obama's plan goes to 55%. But history teaches us that an early majority on a complex subject like this is vulnerable to attack.

Public opinion may seem contradictory, but it has its own logic, one that those in PR and political consulting who are employed by combatants in this battle need to understand as they attempt to shape the healthcare debate.

Dr. Ron Faucheux is president of Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan survey research firm based in Washington, DC. He also teaches at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute.

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