Aliens, the Public Option, and Us

As liberal Democrats will try (and are expected to fail) to add a public-option provision to Chairman Max Baucus's health care bill this week in the Senate Finance Committee, Media Matters for America points out that more Americans believe in UFOs than oppose the public option.

It sounds outlandish, but it's about right: a 2007 Associated Press poll (cited by Media Matters) finds that 34 percent of Americans believe in the existence of UFOs. Meanwhile, anywhere from 26 to 42 percent oppose the public option, according to recent major polls not commissioned by backers or opponents of said option. The public-option support/opposition breakdown, reported by major polls this month, is:

55 percent support/42 percent oppose
, according to a Sept. 12 Washington Post/ABC poll, which worded its question pretty neutrally: "Would you support or oppose having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans?"
65 percent support/26 percent oppose, according to a Sept. 25 NY Times/CBS poll, which also worded its question neutrally, but with a twist: "Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan--something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get--that would compete with private health insurance plans?"

47 percent support/32 percent oppose, according to a Sept. 15 poll by The Economist/YouGov, which asked a more stripped down question: "Do you favor or oppose...having a 'public option' which would allow individuals to purchase health care insurance coverage from the government?"

Aside from the miasma of partisan-sponsored surveys, data on the public option from major polling and news entities has been somewhat scarce in the last month, and these three polls represent the latest and best findings we have. And they paint a somewhat inconsistent picture.

So why the divergence? I'm guessing the NY Times/CBS poll gives the public option a more favorable shake because it likens said option to Medicare...and it's an established fact that even protesters of the public option like Medicare. "No Socialized Medicine...Get Your Hands Off Medicare!" say the signs.

In covering his paper's own poll, David Herszenhorn notes that the description doesn't exactly match up with what's on the table in Congress:

But in Congress, none of the legislative proposals that include the public option would make it available to everyone. In fact, the public option, at least at the outset, would not be an option for most Americans, particularly those who already have health insurance.

"[O]ffering" the plan to "everyone" is a pretty friendly phrase. The Economist/YouGov, meanwhile, uses " purchase" as the verb.

There's also rampant public confusion about what's meant by "public option," Nate Silver noted in August. A Penn, Schoen and Berland online poll (less reliable than phone surveys) showed that only 37 percent of the public knew that a "public option" is a government-administered insurance plan...26 percent, meanwhile, thought it meant creating a national health care system like what they have in Great Britain. Consequently, it matters a lot how pollsters word their descriptions.

The three polls listed above steer clear of partisan insinuation, but public misapprehensions should account for some general loose wiring in poll responses. If only a third of the country knows what you're talking about--or if 2/3 are shocked, confused, and mistrustful when pollsters start asking them about government-administered health insurance plans--random samples become less reliable. (That's not to say Penn, Schoen and Berland's data on "public plan" comprehension is itself totally accurate.)

So the UFO/public option comparison may or may not be completely accurate. If you believe The Economist/YouGov, it's still more or less right.

But comparing public policy opinion to the deep, Jungian jungle of human belief is dangerous business. After all, the same AP survey found that 48 percent--a shade better than the public option fared in The Economist's poll--believe in ESP. In 1997, 80 percent of Americans thought the government was hiding knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms according to CNN.

Perhaps a more relevant question about the public option is: what mythic function does it serve? Does belief in the public option connect us to a larger universe of moral and emotional significance? Does it explain the unexplained?

Or not. It's probably about expanding coverage and introducing a foreign body into the health-insurance market, forcing insurers to lower costs--or, as single-payer advocates hope, a new organism with natural advantages that could one day dominate the ecosystem, like kudzu ivy along U.S. highways. For opponents, it's a government incursion; for supporters, it's a public aspiration--one that the U.S. Senate will probably refuse to grant.

The exact level of public-option support is up for debate, but the most reliable September data tells us more Americans support it than don't. In a world of unknowns, that's what we've got.