In June, an NBC/WSJ poll asked this question [pdf, question 32]:
“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?
And the people spoke:
41% Extremely important, 35% Quite important, 12% Not that important, 8% Not at all important and 4% Not sure.
Thus, 76% of people in America supporting a public health insurance option.
In late July, the same poll asked a different question [pdf, question 28]:
“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?”
And, unsurprisingly, they got a different answer:
46% Support, 44% oppose, 10% not sure.
Now, in August, they've asked the same question as July, and support has slipped for their skewed question three percentage points, within the margin of error. This is now being touted as only 43% in favor of a public health insurance option.
These polls are not comparable. The first poll (June) accurately framed the question - should people be able to choose a public health insurance option. The second poll (July and August) pushed them towards an answer by leaving out the essential question of choice and asking a yes or no question.
Respected pollster Celinda Lake confirms this point:
Poll after poll shows that large majorities of Americans support reform that offers a choice of a public health insurance plan or private insurance. In fact Americans strongly support having that choice rather than access to only private insurance. Choice is a key value.
Jeff Liszt, Partner in Anzalone Liszt Research, adds:
National polling has consistently shown strong support for a public health insurance option that provides choice and competition for Americans. As with any complicated issue, questions about healthcare reform are sensitive to the wording of the question. The use of different language (NBC no longer tests whether people should be given the choice of a public plan) helps explain why NBC's current results look so different from their earlier polling which showed 76% support for the public option, and so different from recent national polling by CBS/NYT and Quinnipiac, both of which show over 65% support for a public health insurance option.
Richard Kirsch, our National Campaign Director, continues:
One can only wonder why the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll removed the concept of choice of a public option after 76% of Americans say they want that choice. By dropping what the President proposes and what the public strongly supports - giving people a choice - from their list of questions, the NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters misrepresent reform and raise questions about their own agenda.
Claims that these polls show a change in support for a public health insurance option are wrong. The only thing that's changed is the way these media firms asked their questions.
Via Media Matters, Chuck Todd apparently thinks accurate describing health reform as a choice is "biased:"
On Hardball earlier this evening, NBC's Chuck Todd claimed that they changed the wording because the word "choice" "biased" the question.
Todd didn't explain what is "biased" about describing a plan that offers people a choice between a public plan and private insurance as offering a choice between a public plan and private insurance.
Aside from the absurdity of describing the original question as "biased," it is important to note that the first question frames the topic of a public plan in terms of its effect on consumers — it indicates that they would have a choice between a public plan and private insurance. The new wording frames it in terms of the plan's effect on private insurance companies by emphasizing that they would face competition. The new wording is only passingly about consumers.
It should come as no surprise that a poll question that adopts the insurance companies' point of view yields results less favorable for a public plan than one that focuses on the impact on consumers.