Thursday, April 08, 2010

Anti-Obamacare Messaging Failures

Who was in charge of messaging against Obamacare?

More than just mere fodder for political horse-race commentary, polls show us where our blind spots and biases are. A recently released Winston Group survey reveals important areas where opponents of Obamacare dropped the ball. Now, we're used to hearing from conservatives that the opposition did its job, and that voters disapprove of Obamacare. And that's basically true. How could we have stopped the Democrats from defying the will of the electorate? By making Obamacare a 70-30 issue rather than a 55-45 issue, or even a 60-40 issue, that's how.

The Winston survey pits the Tea Party perspective against the perspective of the electorate at large, and some fairly big differences stand out. Despite confirmations of their demographic normalcy, bottom line is that the Tea Partiers aren't on the same wavelength as everybody else, and I think that hinders their persuasive abilities. Anti-Obamacare messages were insufficiently effective or non-existent when it came to specific measures in the plan that mattered most to average voters, and Tea Partiers spend a lot of time stressing issues of diminished importance to average voters. Opponents were banging their heads against the walls talking about deficits and tax hikes, when average voters were much more concerned with pre-existing conditions and quality of care.

Let's get to some figures.

Winston Group Questions 29-42: "On a scale of 1-9, with 1 being not important at all, and 9 being extremely important, how important or not important is each of the following items to any health care reform bill that Congress passes."

When the mean figures are tallied and ranked, we notice a dramatic difference in how Tea Partiers rank issue importance versus Registered Voters.

ISSUE Registered Voters Rank (Dec-Feb) Tea Party Rank (Feb)
Protects Seniors' Medicare benefits 1 3
Guarantees affordable coverage for patients with
preexisting conditions
2 8
Ensure the quality of health care 3 11
Ensure that you can keep the heath care coverage you
4 1
Make coverage affordable and available to working
Americans who do not have insurance
5 13
Provide adequate protection against abuses by the
insurance industry
6 9
Bring down health care costs for all Americans 7 10
Helps small businesses to offer health care coverage
without taxing job creation
8 5
Enacts real medical liability reform 9 12
Does not raise taxes 10 2
Does not expand entitlements and force Americans into a
government-run plan
11 6
Reduces the deficit 12 4
Allows insurance companies to sell heath care coverage
across state lines
13 7
Prohibits government funding of abortions 14 14

I think it is extremely telling that two of the top three issues and three of the top five issues important to Registered Voters simply weren't on the radar of the Tea Partiers. And how well did we do communicating with voters on these issues? Not as well as we should have.

Let's first look at Obamacare support as a baseline:

Q-11: "Do you favor or oppose President Obama's health care plan?"
Voters (avg. Dec-Feb*)
Partiers (Feb)
Favor 41% 15%
Oppose 49.7% 82%

* - (a simple average of the three samples, which is close enough for
my purposes)

But we hear from Democrats that voters like specific things inside Obamacare... and there's something to that.

Q-23 (Believe the following statement about Obamacare): "Protects seniors' Medicare benefits" [Ranked #1 in importance to RV's.]
Does 45% 23%
44% 68%

This is a big FAIL on the part of Republicans -- we underperformed the benchmark (Obamacare support) on Medicare perceptions. So they're cutting a giant chunk out of Medicare, using some of it to fund Obamacare and some of it to fill the prescription drug "doughnut hole" at the expense of long-term Medicare solvency, and we only broke even on this issue???

Q-21 (Believe the following statement about Obamacare): "Ensures the quality of health care" [Ranked #3 in importance to RV's.]
Does 35% 14%
57% 83%

Ok, we did a little better on that one, but it was only ranked 11th of 14 in importance to Tea Partiers. What was our message on quality of care? "Death Panels"? I guess cancer survival rates was the message, but I didn't hear much of it. Had somebody bothered to figure out that this was a big deal, we might have stressed this more.

Q-22 (Believe the following statement about Obamacare): "Ensures that you can keep the health care coverage you have" [Ranked #4 in importance to RV's.]
Does 52% 28%
39% 67%

Ok, so this was the number one issue for Tea Partiers, and our message didn't work. What was our message exactly? Substantively, the devil was in the details. You can keep your current plan... so long as your employer doesn't drop coverage, so long as you don't switch jobs, and so long as you don't move out of state.

Q-20 (Believe the following statement about Obamacare): "Makes coverage affordable and available to working Americans who do not have insurance" [Ranked #5 in importance to RV's.]
Does 58% 32%
34% 63%

Again, the devil was in the details --some folks will indeed get subsidies to buy insurance-- and opponents didn't have a cohesive response to that. Unfortunately, the conservative solution for making health insurance more affordable on the low end requires several other Tea Party policies like interstate markets, liability reform, etc., and multi-part stories are harder to tell.

The Winston Group chose not to poll a "belief" question about the pre-existing condition issue (ranked #2 by RV's), but I think I can say with some confidence that this is actually an issue that Obamacare objectively does address. Of course, it must accomplish this by using the heavy-handed individual mandate, perhaps the most noxious element of the plan. So it shouldn't have been overly hard to counter the pre-existing condition bludgeon. But again, what was our message on pre-existing conditions? Subsidized high risk pools, as far as I can tell. Decidedly wonkish and un-sexy. This might have been a great place to actually explain to the public that pre-existing conditions and the individual mandate were linked.

Unfortunately, we have to file this under "Information that really would've been more useful to me yesterday." Who among conservatives figured this out ahead of time? Why isn't this basic work being done? By anybody. RNC, Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, CATO, Heritage... Don't care who.

Do we blame the basic infrastructure of the right? The party organizations exist only to win elections short-term, not fight extended philosophical battles. Think tanks exist to make philosophical and factual arguments, and to suggest policy, but rarely step into "campaign mode" against bad ideas. Occasionally an issue group will step up, but it had better be well-funded and organized. Who out there applies campaign principles to winning policy debates and the long-term cultural battles?

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