Be Wary When the Polls are on Your Side

Throughout the excessively drawn-out and heated debate over President Obama's healthcare reform plan, Republican leaders relied on two broad strategies to undermine the President's key domestic initiative. First, they attacked the plan on its merits: pointing to its unsustainable cost and overbearing scope, and highlighting the underhanded (if not outright corrupt) process by which the bill was pushed through Congress. Second, they routinely cited polls showing public opposition to the plan. As the battle over Paul Ryan's highly bold and highly controversial budget unfolds, it is this second strategy that is coming back to haunt Republican lawmakers.

During the fight over healthcare, some conservative consultants and pundits expressed misgivings about focusing so much on public opinion polls to attack ObamaCare. Their reasoning was that polls are transient and erratic; the public might hate a proposal today but love it tomorrow. By constantly pointing to daily polling numbers in making the case against ObamaCare, Republicans were effectively gambling on the prospect that the law would remain unpopular in perpetuity. Gambling on the long-term unpopularity of entitlement programs -- no matter how misguided and costly they may be -- is almost never shrewd. Once enacted, entitlements are difficult to rescind or even reform because voters like "free" goods and services (see Social Security and Medicare.)  

While ObamaCare remains unpopular, Republicans now find themselves in a strategic quandary over the Ryan budget. Polls show that Ryan's plan, like ObamaCare, is unpopular with the majority of the American people. Herein lies the folly of over-relying on fickle polling to buttress an argument.

How do Republicans counter the Democratic talking point that the American people have rejected Paul Ryan's agenda when this was a central argument Republicans employed against ObamaCare? The short answer is that they can't without being exposed to charges of hypocrisy. If ObamaCare was wrong for America in large part because the American people didn't want it, then Ryan's plan is bad for America for the same exact reason.

Republicans will no doubt argue that Paul Ryan's plan has not been thoroughly analyzed and debated yet, and that leaders can and do move public opinion polls. All this is true. But recall that President Obama and the Democrats expended substantial political capital to educate the American people about ObamaCare's virtues and benefits.  But in the end they failed to sway public opinion.  It is certainly conceivable that once Republicans commit resources to educating the public about the wisdom of Ryan's plan, Americans will embrace it. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this will happen.

It is of course imperative for Republicans to lead the charge to win hearts and minds. Persuading the public to support a set of policies or ideas is a centerpiece of democratic governance. But when fierce opposition mounts, it is unclear which side will win the tug of war for public opinion.  

It was indeed short-sighted for Republicans to make polling data a central weapon in their fight against ObamaCare. They should have anticipated that at some point in the future, some Republican plan would meet stiff public resistance. It would have been more prudent to criticize ObamaCare almost exclusively on substance, and occasionally -- perhaps only in passing -- reference polling data.

The United States is a republic, not a pure democracy. The founders understood that public opinion is fickle and erratic, and like their Greek and Roman philosophical predecessors feared the chaos of "mob rule," which characterized the democratic Greek city states. Thus, they sought to establish a representative government, reasoning that the citizenry would be served best by holding elected representatives responsible for advancing the national welfare and defending the Constitution.

The founders were well aware that democratically elected representatives would have to occasionally introduce legislation that was unpopular with constituents, if they believed the legislation was in the best long-term interest of the country. If the citizens objected, the representative could be voted out of office.

It is precisely this feature of republicanism--the recognition that leaders are often called to undertake unpopular endeavors--that makes the over-reliance on short-term opinion polls so problematic. Perhaps through leadership and an effective marketing campaign, Republicans can quickly turn the tide of public opinion. But if the public remains skeptical, Republicans can expect Democrats to highlight the hypocrisy of railing against ObamaCare while promoting the unpopular Ryan budget.

Going forward, it will serve conservatives and Republicans well to downplay polls, while trying to win public support through leadership and substantive arguments.
Throughout the excessively drawn-out and heated debate over President Obama's healthcare reform plan, Republican leaders relied on two broad strategies to undermine the President's key domestic initiative. First, they attacked the plan on its merits: pointing to its unsustainable cost and overbearing scope, and highlighting the underhanded (if not outright corrupt) process by which the bill was pushed through Congress. Second, they routinely cited polls showing public opposition to the plan. As the battle over Paul Ryan's highly bold and highly controversial budget unfolds, it is this second strategy that is coming back to haunt Republican lawmakers.

During the fight over healthcare, some conservative consultants and pundits expressed misgivings about focusing so much on public opinion polls to attack ObamaCare. Their reasoning was that polls are transient and erratic; the public might hate a proposal today but love it tomorrow. By constantly pointing to daily polling numbers in making the case against ObamaCare, Republicans were effectively gambling on the prospect that the law would remain unpopular in perpetuity. Gambling on the long-term unpopularity of entitlement programs -- no matter how misguided and costly they may be -- is almost never shrewd. Once enacted, entitlements are difficult to rescind or even reform because voters like "free" goods and services (see Social Security and Medicare.)  

While ObamaCare remains unpopular, Republicans now find themselves in a strategic quandary over the Ryan budget. Polls show that Ryan's plan, like ObamaCare, is unpopular with the majority of the American people. Herein lies the folly of over-relying on fickle polling to buttress an argument.

How do Republicans counter the Democratic talking point that the American people have rejected Paul Ryan's agenda when this was a central argument Republicans employed against ObamaCare? The short answer is that they can't without being exposed to charges of hypocrisy. If ObamaCare was wrong for America in large part because the American people didn't want it, then Ryan's plan is bad for America for the same exact reason.

Republicans will no doubt argue that Paul Ryan's plan has not been thoroughly analyzed and debated yet, and that leaders can and do move public opinion polls. All this is true. But recall that President Obama and the Democrats expended substantial political capital to educate the American people about ObamaCare's virtues and benefits.  But in the end they failed to sway public opinion.  It is certainly conceivable that once Republicans commit resources to educating the public about the wisdom of Ryan's plan, Americans will embrace it. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this will happen.

It is of course imperative for Republicans to lead the charge to win hearts and minds. Persuading the public to support a set of policies or ideas is a centerpiece of democratic governance. But when fierce opposition mounts, it is unclear which side will win the tug of war for public opinion.  

It was indeed short-sighted for Republicans to make polling data a central weapon in their fight against ObamaCare. They should have anticipated that at some point in the future, some Republican plan would meet stiff public resistance. It would have been more prudent to criticize ObamaCare almost exclusively on substance, and occasionally -- perhaps only in passing -- reference polling data.

The United States is a republic, not a pure democracy. The founders understood that public opinion is fickle and erratic, and like their Greek and Roman philosophical predecessors feared the chaos of "mob rule," which characterized the democratic Greek city states. Thus, they sought to establish a representative government, reasoning that the citizenry would be served best by holding elected representatives responsible for advancing the national welfare and defending the Constitution.

The founders were well aware that democratically elected representatives would have to occasionally introduce legislation that was unpopular with constituents, if they believed the legislation was in the best long-term interest of the country. If the citizens objected, the representative could be voted out of office.

It is precisely this feature of republicanism--the recognition that leaders are often called to undertake unpopular endeavors--that makes the over-reliance on short-term opinion polls so problematic. Perhaps through leadership and an effective marketing campaign, Republicans can quickly turn the tide of public opinion. But if the public remains skeptical, Republicans can expect Democrats to highlight the hypocrisy of railing against ObamaCare while promoting the unpopular Ryan budget.

Going forward, it will serve conservatives and Republicans well to downplay polls, while trying to win public support through leadership and substantive arguments.

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