Poll Shows Voter Divide on Health Care

With Republicans poised to capture control of the House, the future of the historic health care reform legislation passed earlier this year grows increasingly uncertain. A new Harvard poll of registered voters documents just how highly partisan the debate over health care reform has become among those who expect to vote in the midterm congressional elections next week. Eight out of 10 of those who intend to vote Republican oppose the health care bill passed earlier this year, and seven out of 10 of them want it repealed or substantially dismantled. And yes, the flip side is also true--more than seven out of 10 voters likely to vote Democratic favor the reforms powered through by the Democrat-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Obama on March 23.

"If Republicans regain the House, it will be seen as a mandate from those who voted for them to roll back or replace the health reform bill," said Bob Blendon, a Harvard School of Public Health professor and colleague who I caught up with by telephone yesterday. His latest public opinion poll, released late Wednesday as part of a larger analysis in the online New England Journal of Medicine, surveyed a national representative sample of 938 registered voters between October 1 and 12. Blendon and Harvard research scientist John Benson also did a comprehensive analysis of 17 independent polls conducted this year, most in the past two months.

"We're caught in the polarization of this issue," with the most partisan voters and candidates moving ever further apart, said Blendon, a polling guru who has been tracking public opinion on health care since the Clinton Administration. News accounts, such as the New York Times story Wednesday about the congressional race in Charlottesville, VA, show the Republican "playbook" for the 2010 campaign making health care a prominent issue in many House and Senate races by "largely keeping Democrats on the defensive about the Obama presidency's signature domestic achievement." A recent Pew Research Center-National Journal poll found that more than seven out of 10 responded that a congressional candidate's position on the health care law will play a role in how they vote, with the expected partisan divide among the two major parties and independents far more split.

Ironically, despite the partisan political fur flying among Democratic and Republican candidates, Blendon said the polling shows that overall "slightly more people are in favor of implementing the bill than not ... In terms of the bottom line, the country is about evenly divided." As was the case when the bill passed, many polls show that a majority of Americans neither favor nor oppose the federal health care reform law. The October Harvard poll found that 41 percent of registered voters say they are for repealing or dismantling it, while 49 percent of them support implementing or even expanding the law.

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Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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