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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Heather Graham Teaches Us About Polls

The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org Political Action has released another health care ad featuring a Hollywood celebrity. Last time it was Will Ferrell talking of pygmy horses and executive compensation. This time it’s actress Heather Graham dressing up as a track and field runner (labeled "public option") and challenging health insurance executives to a race.  

As part of its argument, the ad says that "over 70 percent of Americans want the public option." We’ve previously caught both liberal and conservative groups misleading the public with polling numbers during this ongoing health care debate, so we couldn’t help wondering, is this one true?

The ad’s sponsor referred us to a poll conducted in late August by Survey USA and commissioned by MoveOn. That poll asked:

Survey USA Poll: In any health care proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance – extremely important, quite important, not that important, or not at all important? 

Fifty-eight percent responded that it was "extremely important," while 19 percent said "quite important." So the short answer is that the MoveOn ad is on solid footing. But this same question has actually been the focal point of an ongoing polling debate.

Survey USA took the exact wording of the question from a continuing NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. The independent poll is conducted for the news organizations by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff, Democratic and Republican pollsters, respectively.  

The June NBC/WSJ version found 41 percent said it was "extremely important" and 35 percent said it was "quite important" that a health care proposal include a federal insurance plan. That’s a different split but similar total as the Survey USA poll. However, the NBC/WSJ-hired pollsters have been experimenting with their wording and finding very different results. In July and August they used a more terse version:

NBC/WSJ: Would you favor or oppose creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies? 

In both months, fewer than 50 percent said they supported the creation of a "public plan." Some liberal groups complained that the word "choice" no longer appeared in  the question and that was changing the results. So for September, NBC/WSJ pollsters asked half of all respondents the original question and half the new, shorter version. In response to the original "choice" question, 73 percent were in the "extremely" or "quite important" camps. The respondents who were asked the second question? Forty-six percent in favor, and 48 percent opposed. 

So 70 percent of Americans may indeed support a public option. As long as they hear the word "choice" when they’re asked about it.