As support for health care reform has eroded over the summer, Americans' views on the issue have started to harden along partisan lines. That leaves independents in the enviable, and familiar, position of being potential kingmakers in the court of public opinion. So what do indies want from reform?
Like voters overall, independents have become more skeptical of reform as the debate in Congress has dragged on. As recently as June, a slim majority of independents told Diageo/Hotline pollsters they approved of President Obama's handling of health care, and 64 percent were in favor of a "major overhaul." A month later, a slim majority of indies now disapproved of Obama's handling of the issue, and the percentage that supported reform had sunk 15 points to 49 percent. A Marist poll of registered voters released Friday showed 52 percent of independents now disapprove of the president's handling of health care.
But while unaligned voters aren't exactly rallying around the Senate Finance Committee or the House Tri-Committee bill, opponents of reform can hardly count on holding this demographic. Three Ipsos/McClatchy polls -- conducted soon after the inauguration, in early April and from July 31 to Aug. 3 -- show that while independents' support for Obama on health care has declined sharply, it hasn't approached the disapproval ratings Republicans give the president on the issue. Independents remain firmly planted between members of each party, currently rating Obama at 2.9 on a 1-to-5 scale while Republicans give him a 2.1 and Dems a 3.8.
While independents are clearly growing more wary of reform efforts overall, support is actually growing by some measures. The Kaiser Family Foundation's monthly tracking poll asks respondents whether they think health reform would make their family and the country better off. Since April, the percentage of independents who said it would make things worse for their family has nudged up from 15 percent to 18 percent to 22 percent. The percentage who thought it would benefit their family went up as well, though, from 38 percent in April to 41 percent in July. A similar trend held for whether reform would help the country at large. These results suggest independents are being polarized by the issue but aren't heading exclusively to one side.
When asked about specific reform proposals, these voters continue backing some key options put forth by Democrats. While support for a public option actually fell 16 points among Democrats from April to July, it stayed strong among independents; 3 out of 5 continue to support what has turned out to be a major sticking point in Senate negotiations. A June poll commissioned by Democracy Corps (D) put independents' support for a public option lower -- at 49 percent -- but still substantially above the 31 percent of Republicans who approved.
Even more surprising is the fact that support for a single-payer system -- an option not being considered in Congress -- jumped from 39 percent in June to 49 percent in July in the Kaiser poll. Support for a mandate requiring every American to have health insurance moved in the opposite direction, from 71 percent in June to 64 percent in July.
Should health reform efforts fail, polls show Democrats in Congress would likely pay a bigger price in public opinion than Obama. Twelve percent of independents in Diageo/Hotline's July poll said that if reform fails to pass before the midterms, they would hold Democratic lawmakers most responsible, while 17 percent said Republicans and just 5 percent pointed to Obama. But independents were more likely than partisans to blame the health care industry, with a 33 percent plurality putting the blame there. In the newer Marist poll, 26 percent of independents clearly pinned Democrats in Congress as most responsible if efforts fail, with Obama placing a distant fourth behind drug companies or blaming no one in particular.