No matter how talented the pollster, the results of any survey conducted the day after an event ought to be taken with quite a few grains of salt. Nevertheless, the outcome of the Monday night USA Today/Gallup Poll, which checked the nation's pulse less than 24 hours after the House passed its massive health care package, demonstrates that seemingly huge, consequential events can have a rather small impact on public opinion if the topic has been debated ad infinitum.
The 1,005 adults interviewed were first told, "As you may know, yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that restructures the nation's health care system." Then they were asked, "All in all, do you think it is a good thing or a bad thing that Congress passed this bill?" Overall, 49 percent responded that it was good, 40 percent said that it was bad, and 11 percent had no opinion. (You've gotta love those 11 percent of folks who have listened to all of this arguing and still don't know or don't care.)
Although independents are usually a smaller share of the electorate in midterms, they will play a crucial role.
Although not an overwhelming endorsement of the legislation, these numbers are certainly better for Democrats than the tallies in most pre-vote polls. The rest of the survey's results, however, are more telling. Among self-described Democrats, 79 percent thought that passing the health care bill was good, and just 9 percent thought it was bad. Among Republicans, 76 percent thought it was a bad thing, and 14 percent called it a good thing. So the Democratic and Republican assessments are almost mirror images of each other, with slightly more Republicans supportive than Democrats opposed. (The difference was within the margin of error for the subgroups involved.) But here's the kicker: 46 percent of independents thought it was a good thing, and an almost identical portion -- 45 percent -- thought it was bad.
Asked to choose among four single-word emotions to describe their reaction to the bill's passage, 15 percent of the entire group surveyed said "enthusiastic" and 35 percent chose "pleased." Meanwhile, 23 percent picked "disappointed" and 19 percent opted for "angry." The combined 50 percent positive/42 percent negative responses were close to the previous set of numbers for good thing/bad thing. Among independents, a total of 45 percent chose either enthusiastic (10 percent) or pleased (35 percent); a combined 47 percent picked disappointed (27 percent) or angry (20 percent).
In short, Democrats are happy about the legislation, Republicans are not, and independents are closely divided. To the extent that more Americans like the bill than not, that is simply because there are more Democrats out there than Republicans.
Polls taken weeks and months from now will be much more meaningful. In terms of the upcoming elections, what happens next will likely turn out to be far more important than passage of the health care bill. Can and will President Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill shift their focus to issues that are less controversial and polarizing? Will the next few items on the Democratic agenda reinforce public concerns, particularly among the all-important independent voters, that government is spending too much and is expanding its turf far more than it should?
Although independents are usually a smaller share of the electorate in midterm elections than in presidential contests, they will nevertheless play a crucial role, as we can see from the Gallup polling on the generic ballot test for the week that ended March 21. The survey of registered voters found that 92 percent of Democrats would vote for their party's candidate for Congress in their home district, while 92 percent of Republicans would support the GOP choice. Independents tilted toward Republicans, with 48 percent saying they would vote for the GOP candidate and just 35 percent favoring the Democrat.
The overall numbers show Democrats with a 2-percentage-point edge, 47 percent to 45 percent, down from 3 points the previous week. But remember, this poll surveyed all registered voters, not the smaller universe of "likely" voters. And fairly high Republican turnout on November 2 is sounding much more likely: Forty-three percent of GOP voters say they are enthusiastic about the midterm election compared with just 25 percent of Democrats. That's a strong clue about where these numbers might be headed later this year when Gallup narrows its polling to "likely" voters.
This article appears in the March 27, 2010, edition of National Journal.