In a guest posting over at Pollster.com, Cliff Young and Aaron Amic of Ipsos Public Affairs and the Ipsos McClatchy Poll, offer their wisdom on issue (as opposed to election) polling, with a specific focus on health care reform. The following passage captures this point:
...in presidential elections, our job as pollsters is made easy with ballot questions being basically fixed after the primaries. Simply put, we know which candidates will be running. This, in turn, all but defines our ballot question for us.
In contrast, issues like healthcare reform are quite fuzzy as no bill typically exists at the beginning of the process. This makes the construction of a single question impossible if not simply disingenuous.
Put another way, we have no "true value" to measure against- no concrete bill exists (or at least did not exist until recently). You can't measure what doesn't exist!
Young and Amic note the distinction between general items (e.g., "Do you support or oppose the health care plan...") and specific ones (pertaining to a public option, employer mandates, etc.). However, they appear to see both as reflecting primarily broad underlying values rather than truly crystallized opinions. Again, some passages:
Are... generic questions valid at all? We think they are but with caveats.
Indeed, before the final bill, such questions seem to be nothing more than a measure of optimism about the reform process, much like "right track, wrong track" questions. Looking forward to a final bill, we do expect that such generic questions will become relevant. Only then will they have a "true value" to be measured against.
...questions which reference specifics like the "public option" are hypothetical and have to be understood as such. Indeed, without a final bill, they should be used more for sensitivity analysis than anything predictive-which policy measures garner more support, which ones less so...
To this end, we have tracked specific items for most of the healthcare debate. Here we understood that healthcare reform would be fundamentally a debate about the role of government (or lack thereof). All of our items fall along a government intervention continuum. In our experience, polling on "fuzzy" issues places a premium on understanding the underlying value cleavages related to the policy debate at hand. At its essence, healthcare reform is a debate about the proper role of government.
(The reference to "sensitivity analysis" implies to me that items are used only to see if they make broader trends move upward or downward, and not because of any substantive message they convey; see here for further description.)
Notice, however, that Young and Amic seem to be saying that with emergence of the final bill, the responses to both general and specific items will now take on greater substantive clarity, like responses to whether someone in 2008 was going to vote for Obama or McCain.
Color me skeptical. Given the vast number of provisions likely to be in the final health care reform bill, the complexity of many concepts, and the partisan spin we're likely to hear from politicians on both sides of the ideological divide, I would still expect citizens' impressions of the final bill to convey broad values rather than fine-tuned judgments.