Polling Medicare

Ezra Klein writes:


For some time, I've been trying to find good polling from the passage of Medicare. According to Greg Sargent, though, the Democrats beat me to it:
In a last-minute effort to stiffen Dem spines, senior Dem leadership aides are circulating among House Dems some polling numbers from the 1960s that underscore how controversial Medicare was in the months leading up to its historic passage.

Dem leadership staff is highlighting a series of numbers from 1962 on President John F. Kennedy's proposal. In July of that year, a Gallup poll found 28% in favor, 24% viewing it unfavorably, and a sizable 33% with no opinion on it -- showing an evenly divided public.

A month later, after JFK's proposal went down, an Opinion Research Corporation poll found 44 percent said it should have been passed, while 37% supported its defeat -- also showing an evenly divided public.

After Lyndon Johnson was elected, a Harris poll found only a minority, 46%, supported a Federal plan to extend health care to the aged. Today, of course, Medicare is overwhelmingly popular.


This is . . . er . . . a trifle incomplete.  In fact, the nice folks at Gallup--the premier polling organization of the era--have already answered that question, so we don't need to rely on self-serving assertions by politicians:

 A few years ago, my Gallup colleague Julie Ray reviewed Gallup polling data from the 1960s as Medicare was being proposed and debated.


In March 1962, Gallup asked about two approaches for "meeting the hospital costs of older persons". The results: A majority of Americans favored a plan which would "cover persons on Social Security and would be paid by increasing the Social Security tax deducted from pay checks" when contrasted to a plan that would "let each individual decide whether to join Blue Cross or buy some form of voluntary health insurance."

Of interest is Ray's finding that "In 1962, a clear majority of Democrats, 65%, preferred the Social Security approach, while a majority of Republicans (52%) said they preferred the private insurance approach. Political independents' preferences were closer to those of Democrats, with 56% preferring the Social Security approach." This, of course, has the same contours as the partisan breaks we find today in reference to new healthcare legislation.

Gallup repeated this question several more times. At least a plurality always preferred the Medicare option. The margins did decrease, at one point down to 44% favoring the Medicare option, 40% the private insurance option.

In 1964, 61% of Americans approved when asked the following question: "Congress has been considering a compulsory medical insurance program covering hospital and nursing home care for the elderly. This Medicare program would be financed out of increased Social Security taxes. In general, do you approve or disapprove of this program?" Another poll conducted that year found 57% approving of the concept. Medicare became law less than a year later.

Bottom line: Although support for Medicare fluctuated, it appears to have engendered at least a plurality margin of approval in contemporaneous Gallup polls. Most current polls measuring new healthcare legislation find at least a plurality opposed.

That hasn't been true of the Gallup numbers since January; it hasn't been true of the broader numbers since last July:



Now, Medicare popularity did improve after it passed.  On the other hand, it wasn't passed despite terrible polling, with a controversial process, by a political party that was tanking in popularity thanks to a grinding recession.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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