Health Care Polling: It's Not Popular, But Numbers Improve for Dems

Opinion moves slowly on health care, but it seems to move in Democrats' favor

Did health care reform actually become more popular once it was passed? It depends who you ask.

Before the House voted to pass health reform in the late hours of Sunday, March 21, conventional wisdom in Beltway media circles was that President Obama and Democrats would benefit from passing their bill, even though it was unpopular. They had worked so long to pass it, it was better to do something than nothing, they would fight the impression that Democrats can't agree or get anything done, etc.

Major polls showed Americans opposing reform by roughly 10 percentage points, on average, and it was generally agreed that health reform was not supported by Americans, unless its specific benefits were enumerated.

The day after the House voted, Gallup found a near-perfect inversion of that opinion: 49% said the House had done a good thing by passing health care, compared to 40% who saw the vote negatively. Rasmussen quickly rebutted this with a finding that 55% of Americans supported a repeal of the bill.

Clearly, the landscape of opinion on health care was going to be complex.

Since then, three major polls have been released, and mostly tell a favorable story for President Obama. They do not show health care suddenly supported by a wide margin--in fact, they show it's still unpopular--but, while the picture is a bit murky, they do offer a few encouraging signs for Obama and his party.

In two of the three surveys--conducted by Quinnipiac, CBS, and Washington Post/ABC--public support for health care reform has gone up. Quinnipiac shows support going from 36% to 40% (now at 40% approve, 49% disapprove), when compared to Quinnipiac's survey taken the week before the vote. CBS shows it improving from 37% to 42% (now at 42% approve, 46% disapprove).

The bad news for Democrats: the approve/disapprove differential actually worsens in the Quinnipiac poll, as more people also said they disapprove. The split goes from -8 to -9.

Support for health reform remains steady in the Washington Post/ABC survey, though opposition increases by one percentage point. In the last Post/ABC poll before the vote, taken in the first week of February, reform polled at 46% approve/49% disapprove; now it polls at 46% approve/50% disapprove.

So, on average, health care is still not supported by most poll respondents. In all three polls, more respondents disapproved than approved. The splits are: Quinnipiac, -9; CBS, -4; Post/ABC, -4.

The good news for Democrats: supporters of health reform are getting more passionate, according to Post/ABC. The "strongly approve" category went up 10%, from 22% to 32%. That's still not as many who "strongly disapprove": that category also increased, from 38% to 40%. CBS did not find this to be the case.

Beyond reform's continued unpopularity, coupled with some gains in that regard, the rest of the news has been mostly good for Dems.

President Obama's numbers have improved drastically on his handling of health care as an issue. Quinnipiac showed his differential improving by 12%; CBS, by 9%; Post/ABC, by 9%.

All three show Obama still in negative territory, however. Quinnipiac shows Obama at 44% approve/50% disapprove on his handling of health care; before the vote, he was at 36% approve/58% disapprove. CBS shows him at 47% approve, 48% disapprove; before the vote, he was at 41% approve, 51% disapprove. Post/ABC shows him at 48% approve, 49% disapprove; in February, he was at 43% approve, 53% approve.

Obama's overall job approval has gone up, according to both Quinnipiac and Post/ABC. Quinnipiac shows an improved split of 45% approve/46% disapprove, compared to 46% approve/49% disapprove before the vote (split has gone from -3 to -1). Post/ABC shows Obama now at 53% approve/43% disapprove, compared to 51% approve/46% disapprove in early February (split has gone from +5 to +10).

On voter trust, Obama and Democrats improve in Quinnipiac's poll to 45% over congressional Republicans' 35%. Before the vote, both sat at 42%.

The Post/ABC numbers, meanwhile, are better for Republicans: in that poll, Democrats' +27 advantage (56% to 29%) from February has fallen to +13 (47% to 34%).

It's a complex picture all around. Polls have failed to corroborate Gallup's finding that health care is suddenly supported by many more Americans than not, but, in several categories, opinion seems to be tipping in Obama's direction, if not in the direction of the health reform plan itself.