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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Americans and the Healthcare Reform Legislation

Where does healthcare reform legislation stand at this point -- from the perspective of the American public?

I found five polls on the topic conducted within the last month or so. Each poll contains a question about the healthcare reform legislation worded at least somewhat differently from every other poll. Each is located within the particular context of a particular survey. We would therefore expect some differences. There are.



Four of the five surveys show a net negative reaction to the healthcare legislation.  That includes our Gallup survey from late August in which we asked about “The healthcare overhaul” in the context of four other “major pieces of legislation that Congress has passed in the last two years.” Asked in this context, we found a 17-percentage-point negative reaction, 39% approving, and 56% disapproving.

CBS News/The New York Times, AP-GfK, and Pew Research polls found, using different wording, net -12, -5, and -7 point negative over positive reactions.

The one exception to this negative reaction comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation polling on healthcare. Their question is: “As you may know, a new health reform bill was signed into law earlier this year. Given what you know about the new health reform law, do you have a generally (favorable) or generally (unfavorable) opinion of it? [ROTATE TERMS IN PARENTHESES] [GET ANSWER THEN ASK:Is that a very (favorable/unfavorable) or somewhat (favorable/unfavorable) opinion?]”

The results of their most recent survey (Sept. 14-19) show a 9-percentage-point margin in favor of the legislation, 49% with a favorable opinion, and 40% with an unfavorable opinion. This is a significant turnaround from Kaiser’s August survey, in which they found a 2-point negative margin. And, of course, it’s a significant exception from the other four polls on this topic referenced above. The dates of the Kaiser September survey are fairly close to the other polls with the exception of Gallup’s, which is somewhat older.

Here are the ways in which the healthcare legislation is described to respondents:


There is variation here.  This includes in particular the fact that Pew uses Barack Obama in its identification of the legislation, while the other poll wordings do not. But I don’t see any highly evident factor in the wording that would, on the face of it, explain why the Kaiser results are positive in contrast to the negative results obtained by the other polls. Some split sample experiments would be helpful to tease out the implications, if any, of different ways of describing the healthcare reform legislation to respondents.

At any rate, we know that healthcare is not at the top of the agenda for Americans. Asked in our September poll to rate how important each of a series of issues will be in their vote for Congress this year, 49% said that healthcare was extremely important, putting it behind the economy (62%), jobs (60%), corruption in government (51%), and federal spending (51%). Healthcare was at least slightly more important, however, than terrorism, immigration, the situation in Afghanistan, or the environment.

Just 6% of Americans mention healthcare in our September update of the most important problem facing the nation today.

On Oct. 13 Gallup and USA Today will be hosting a summit on exactly what it is that the average American wants their federal government to do or be. One new question we will be discussing asks Americans what the government should stop doing that it is doing now. Healthcare reform tops the list. Sign up for the summit to learn more.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Execution in Virginia, the American Public, and the Death Penalty

The state of Virginia executed Teresa Lewis on Thursday night, the first woman to be put to death in that state since 1912. Lewis had been convicted of the murder of her husband and son back in 2002. As is usually the case with executions, there were protests. Thousands signed petitions asking that her life be spared, and according to the Washington Post, groups such as the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church all objected.

It is likely that the state-sanctioned killing of Lewis did not create attitudinal problems with the majority of Americans. Our latest Gallup data show that:

  • Sixty-five percent of Americans favor the use of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder.
  • Half of Americans say that the death penalty is not imposed often enough; only 20% say it is imposed too often.
  • A majority say the death penalty is applied fairly in this country.
  • In 2002, 68% of Americans said they favored the death penalty for women.
At the same time, only 13% favor the use of the death penalty for someone who is mentally retarded, which was one of the arguments used in the case of Lewis, who had been characterized as having a low IQ.

As noted, the Virginia Catholic Conference was one of those protesting the executive of Teresa Lewis. The Catholic position on the death penalty is not totally black and white, but Pope John Paul II said in 1999: "I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

Our data show that rank-and-file Catholics in the U.S. are only slightly less likely than the overall population to find the death penalty morally unacceptable -- 61% versus 65% for the total population in our most recent May survey.

One might also think that those who oppose the death penalty would be opposed to abortion, since both involve what has been defined as the taking of lives. But that’s not the case. Take a look at these data from our May Values survey.


Thirty-one percent of Americans say that the death penalty is morally acceptable -- but at the same time say that abortion is morally wrong.

Twenty-seven percent say that the death penalty and abortion are morally acceptable, which seems a bit more mentally congruent. Only 14% adopt what might seem like the other coherent position -- the death penalty is wrong and abortion is wrong.

By the way, Gallup first asked Americans about the death penalty in 1936, the year that Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his second term as president, in the midst of the Depression, and the year in which actor Alan Alda and TV host Dick Cavett were born. This death penalty question was one of the first asked by Dr. George Gallup in his then nascent Gallup poll. The results? Fifty-nine percent at that point in history said the death penalty was morally acceptable, fewer than today.

You may be asking what the all time high point for death penalty support has been over the past 74 years? The answer: 80%, in 1994. The all-time low, 42%, came in 1966 a year before the so-called “voluntary moratorium” on the death penalty that lasted from 1967 and 1972.

One other fact of interest: When we asked Americans a few years ago to tell us why they favored the death penalty, the four most frequently occurring answers were, in order, “an eye for an eye,” “fits the crime”; 2) they deserve it; 3) save taxpayers the money involved in keeping murderers in prison; and 4) deterrent for potential crimes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Obama Events of the Week

President Barack Obama, as is true of most presidents, has been getting around lately.

On Sunday of this week he attended church with his family in Washington at St. John's Episcopal Church. This is one of the few times he has been to church since taking office.

Gallup interviews with over 300,000 Americans in 2009 show that, as an infrequent church attender, Obama is right at home with about 45% of Americans who seldom or never attend religious services. On the other hand, 43% of Americans say they attend church weekly or almost every week.

Obama’s demographic characteristics produce somewhat contradictory findings in terms of predicted church attendance. As an African American, he would be expected to be above average in church attendance; blacks have the highest attendance of any race or ethnic group in America. As a male, he would be expected to attend less frequently, given the universal gender gap in religiosity in America today. As a baby boomer (he is 49 and at the tail end of the baby boom) he would be in a middle category of church attendance, higher than those younger, but lower than those 60 and above. His education would not matter; there is little relationship between education and church attendance. Living in D.C.? That predicts slightly lower than average attendance. Obama is a Democrat, and that predicts lower than average church attendance, particularly compared to Republicans, who are much more religious on all indicators.

About 2% of Americans identify as Episcopalian, by the way. Episcopalians continue to retain the distinction of having the highest average income of any Christian religious group in America.

Obama held an hour-long television broadcast on CNBC on Monday talking about jobs. That particular topic makes a lot of sense from the people's perspective.

Our latest data show that only 10% of Americans say that now is a good time to find a quality job. Very modified good news for Obama comes from the fact that this is basically no worse than the 9% who said it was a good time in his first full month in office, February 2009. But, as recently as February 2007, we had 45% saying it was a good time to find quality job. The all-time low on this is 8%, measured in November 2009 -- not much different than where it is today.

Meanwhile, as Obama was talking about the economy, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the recession was over and has been over since the summer of 2009. That’s nice to know. However, only 16% of Americans agree. Plus, Americans continue to say that the economy and jobs are the most important problems facing the country. By far.

After his CNBC speech on Monday, President Obama headed for the Keystone State (Pennsylvania) and campaigned for Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral running for the Senate. Obama exhorted the Democrats in the audience to get out and vote. This type of motivational speech is much needed by Democrats, who are running 19 percentage points below Republicans in terms of saying they are “very” enthusiastic about voting this year. Democrats are also way behind on our measure of “thought” given to the election.

Thursday, Obama speaks to the United Nations in New York City. Thirty-one percent of Americans said that the United Nations is doing a good job in our latest update in February of this year. That's down from the high point (since 1954) of 58% measured in February 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist bombings and the U.S. incursion into Afghanistan.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Obama Approval and Democratic Party ID So Far in September

President Obama’s job approval rating has ticked back up modestly so far in September, as I discussed in some detail here. Last week, Sept. 6-12, our interviews with roughly 3,500 Americans showed Obama with a 46% average; the previous week he was at 45%. These ratings are not remarkable in and of themselves, but do represent an uptick from the 43% weekly ratings he got in mid to late August.

We also have been monitoring a very modest uptick in Democratic party identification so far in September.


August was a down month for Democrats, with Republicans moving to a tie on our leaned party identification measure, 42% to 42%. That was the culmination of a gradual loss of positioning on the part of the Democrats over the last year or two. In May of 2009, for example, Democrats had a 14-percentage-point advantage over Republicans. Of course, this was still during Obama's honeymoon period, when Obama’s job approval rating was at about 60%.  Now, so far in September, the Democrats have regained a slight margin. 

August of this year was the best month we have seen for Republicans on our generic ballot. The GOP enjoyed an overall six-point lead over Democrats among registered voters in August. That included three weekly averages with a 6-, 7-, and 10-point leads, all the largest in midterm elections in Gallup's history. The Democrats, however, have come back at least modestly from that hole as well.

All in all, there are nascent signs of a modest renaissance for the Democrats in September so far. This may partially reflect the fact that the president is back from vacation and as a result highly active in a public sense, the fact that Americans are tuning into politics after the summer season, some push back perhaps from the highly publicized Glenn Beck rally in Washington, D.C., Obama’s announcement of the end of combat operations in Iraq, or still other factors.

And, of course, we don’t know in which direction things are going to go from this point forward.

The news coverage of the so-called “Tea Party” victories in Tuesday’s primary voting could engender a reaction from the public. The reaction of the press is typified by such headlines as USA Today’s “Tea Party’s wins fuel a ‘civil war’ within GOP” and The Wall Street Journal’s “Primaries Stoke Turmoil”. Whether or not these alleged "civil wars" and "turmoil" will cause Americans to shift their views of the two political parties, the president, or their voting intentions in November remains to be seen. I would say all signs show we are in a time period where some fluidity in all of these measures is quite possible.

One last point. Support for the Tea Party has been very steady so far this year. We asked about the Tea Party four times from March through August, and in each survey between 28% to 31% of Americans said they were supporters. We are in the field this week with another update on the Tea Party, which will pick up the impact of Tuesday’s voting, if any.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What's Behind Support for Increased Taxes on the "Rich"?

The idea of taxing the rich and redistributing the wealth has generally been met with approval from the American public. As I’ll get to in a minute, I think that’s primarily because most Americans are not rich and therefore are fine with sticking it to those who are.

Here’s a fascinating question that was first asked by the Roper Organization for Fortune Magazine back in March of 1939: “Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?”

At that time, nearing the tail end of the Depression and as war loomed both in Europe and in the Pacific, 35% of Americans said “yes” to the idea of heavy taxes on the rich, 54% said “no,” and the rest were undecided.

One might think the parlous economic times of the Depression would represent the apex of American support for redistributive policies. But not so. By March of 2009 when we most recently re-asked this question, 50% of Americans were OK with the idea of heavy taxes on the rich -- an increase of 15 percentage points since the Depression.

Other Gallup questions reveal that well over half of Americans more generally say that money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people. We have measured that finding in poll after poll over the last 20 years. A majority of Americans also say the amount of taxes paid by upper-income Americans is "too little," although that sentiment has actually been declining in recent years.

As noted, one of the reasons for these sentiments is the fact that most Americans consider themselves to be decidedly not rich. A very lonely 2% of Americans when we last checked a couple of years ago said that they were part of the upper class, and another 19% said they were part of the upper-middle class. The great mass of Americans put themselves in the middle or working class (8% say lower class).

The Census Bureau also tells us that about 2% of all households have $250,000 a year income or higher. That means that 98% of all households would not personally be affected by tax increases on those making $250,000 or more a year.

This $250,000 figure is important because it has taken on unique significance in the current debate on tax cuts. The Obama administration wants to keep the Bush era tax cuts in place for all Americans except those making $250,000 a year or more, which would be a de facto tax increase for the latter group.

Some polls have asked directly if Americans favor letting the tax cuts expire for the rich and not for everyone else. The results are somewhat mixed. One of these, for example, was an Aug. 25-26 Newsweek poll, which found 52% support for allowing “ . . . the Bush tax cuts for persons in the top two percent income category to EXPIRE in 2011 . . . ” An Aug. 5-9 NBC News/The Wall Street Journal poll, however, found 46% support for eliminating “ . . . the tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 per year", with 51% opposing.  This poll, however, included this proposal in a list of alternatives, and when asked in a different way about keeping in place "....the tax cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 per year" a whooping majority of 66% agreed. 

Gallup recently used a three-part construction, asking respondents if they favor leaving all the tax cuts in place for everyone, removing the tax cuts for everyone, or letting the tax cuts expire only for those making more than $250,000 a year. Over 8 in 10 favored keeping at least some tax cuts -- 44% saying only for those making less than $250,000 a year, and 37% for everyone. Very few, 15%, would advocate letting the tax cuts expire for everyone (i.e., giving everyone an increase in taxes).

My colleague Jeff Jones has details on this survey here.  I think it's a little tricky to interpret.  The data show that Americans certainly would not want the adminstration to let all of the Bush tax cuts to expire.  And the majority do not favor keeping all of the tax cuts in place.  Of the alternatives, the Obama plan to cut out the cuts for the $250K+ crowd gets the most support, but it's not the majority.

Still, the broad contextual data suggest that the Obama admininstration has general sympathy from the public when it argues that the rich should pay more in taxes. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Beck, Religion, and Obama

Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally this past weekend focused a lot on religion and God. As Beck said: "This day is the day that we can start the heart of America again. And it has nothing to do with politics, it has everything to do with God."

True, but politics was never far beneath the surface at the rally. The presence of the highly political former vice presidential candidate and possible presidential candidate Sarah Palin certainly suggested at the least political overtones to the rally. Plus, of course, Beck himself is a highly political and ideological talk show host for whom politics is his mother’s milk.

At any rate, there is little question that in America today politics and religion are a highly interwoven phenomena. Religious Americans, in particular religious white Americans, are disproportionately likely to identify as Republicans, while the Democratic party is more likely to be the resting place for those who are less religious.

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