The majority of Democrats who are now running to replace Donald Trump are running on a platform of a single payer health system, or Medicare-for-All. Bernie Sanders has been championing this idea for the past several decades and at a recent rally he claimed that the American people have moved in his direction, such that the majority now wants a single payer system. Is he right?
According to KFF polls, he has a legitimate point. Support appears to be going up, but this is not the whole story. It can be easy to see these overall numbers and draw the conclusions you want, but the poll went deeper. When the pollsters asked follow up questions, informing the participant that it could lead to higher taxes, it dropped to 37% support. When possible delays in care were brought up, 26% supported it.
Gallup, on the other hand, has a very different view when they phrase the question as to whether or not universal care is the responsibility of the federal government. Support is high throughout the Bush presidency, goes down through Obama, and has been trending up in the last five years.
Reuters-Ipsos came out with a poll back in August with more sweeping results – 70% of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support Medicare-for-All.
With all of this data, though, we can conclude that Medicare-for-All support is increasing, right? Yes…maybe.
On the other side, a series of Morning Consult polls shows a more recent picture of a sharp decline in recent months, with the headline: “Voter Support for ‘Medicare-for-All’ Tumbles in New Year.”
The important point to remember here is that polls are problematic for many reasons:
- The wording of questions sway the people that are being questioned. I can give some horrible tax idea a nice sounding title with words like “Fairness” and “Equality” and I can produce poll results saying a majority of Americans support my tax proposal.
- People who are polled give short-sighted answers, taking back their responses when the questioner brings up additional information.
- Instead of being a sample of the population, polls are actually a sample of the people in the US who are willing to answer pollsters questions.
- The inconsistency of the methodology of different pollsters makes it almost impossible to aggregate the results together.
- Politicians are going to use the results they want to use and have no incentive to provide a context or paint a complete picture of what the numbers mean.
Statistics is all about finding the signal through the noise and on this particular question, there is a lot of noise. The question of whether the majority of Americans want universal healthcare can only vaguely be glimpsed through the polls. The real answer is going to come over the next several months, as the Democratic candidates make their pitch to America for universal health care coverage. Despite where public opinion is at now on the issue, a lot can happen in the 20 months between now and the general election.