The health reform summit last week was remarkable in many ways.
The more than seven hours of televised discussion of health care policy delivered the "little slice of heaven" that policy wonks like the Washington Post's Ezra Klein expected, but it also delivered something surprising. It "may have set the record for the most times 'polls' have been cited in one place in the history of the Republic," as Republican pollster Steve Lombardo put it.
It started with the first Republican speaker, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who claimed that the Republicans "represent the views of a great number of the American people" -- expressed through "town hall meetings, through surveys" and through the recent off-year elections -- "that they oppose the health care bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve."
A chorus of Republicans throughout the day echoed Alexander's assertions. "The American people don't care for the bill," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. "I think that we've demonstrated in polling that they don't."
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso expressed "great concerns" that summit participants were not "listening to the American people" given that "only one in three people in America support what is being proposed here."
Many referred to messages they had received from their constituents absent a specific reference to polls. Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, for example, referenced "town hall meetings, telephone calls, e-mails" in arguing that "the American people have spoken out very loudly and very clearly" and "want us to take a step back" from the bills passed by the House and Senate.
Sen. John McCain cited his constituents and all Americans "who overwhelmingly reject this proposal" and "want us to go back to the beginning."
But the most prolific Republican poll spinner was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "The American people," he advised, "if you average out all of the polls, are opposed to this bill by 55-37." Apparently unimpressed with the closer margins in the averages posted that day by RealClearPolitics (51 percent oppose, 40 percent favor) and my own site, Pollster.com (51 percent oppose, 42 percent favor), McConnell seems to have devised his own. According to the Associated Press, McConnell arrived at his own using "CNN, NPR and Quinnipiac polls taken at various times in January."
He did not stop there. McConnell also cited a USA Today/Gallup poll showing Americans "opposed to using the reconciliation device" by a 52 percent to 39 percent margin. And later that afternoon he used his concluding remarks to repeat both sets of numbers.
The Republicans were not alone in their polling punditry. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., kicked off his own remarks with a reference to the "interesting" results from a poll released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Fifty-eight percent of Americans," he said, "would be disappointed or angry if we did not do health care reform this year -- 58 percent. Across America, more than 60 percent of Republicans, Democrats and independents want us to reform the way health care works."
But the most extended discussion of polling by far ultimately came from the poll spinner-in-chief, as it were: President Obama. As he did with many subjects during the day, the president exercised his prerogative to get the last words on polling. Noting the comments from so many Republicans "about the polls and what they're hearing from their constituents," Obama delivered a lengthy rejoinder that was extraordinary, if only because it came not from a pollster but rather from the president of the United States.
"What's interesting," he said, "is actually when you poll people about the individual elements in each of these bills, they're all for them. So you ask them, do you want to prohibit pre-existing conditions? Yes, I'm for that. Do you want to make sure that everybody can get basic coverage that's affordable? Yes, I'm for that. Do you want to make sure that insurance companies can't take advantage of you and that you've got the ability, as Ron said, to fire an insurance company that's not doing a good job and hire one that is, but also, that you've got some basic consumer protections? Yes, we like that. So polls I think are important in taking a temperature of the public."
A few days before the summit, Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport proposed that it begin with a poll briefing, or as he put it, "a systematic review of where the people of the country stand on health care." Afterwards, Newport was encouraged that "voice of the American people is being interjected into the debate" but disappointed by the "puzzling or unknown origins" of some of the poll references.
In some ways, the summit's polling conversation mirrors the way pundits and partisans have talked about public opinion all along. We have certainly not suffered from a shortage of polls. According to its editor, Tom Silver, the nonpartisan Polling Report has published results of health policy questions asked (or tracked) 1,168 times since March 2009.
But rather than accept the often conflicting hopes, anxieties and preferences those polls measure, compounded by less-than-universal awareness of the policy details, partisans prefer to cherry-pick whatever number purports to show the "American people" on their side.
Unfortunately, the summit participants were no closer to a consensus on public opinion of health care reform than they were on the details of the legislation.