Most Americans oppose President Obama's health law, but overturning it wouldn't have made them happy.
That's just one perplexing wrinkle in health-care polling, which has always elicited contradictory trends, going back to the days when respondents opposed Democrats' changes, while saying they didn't go far enough. As pollsters ask blunt questions about the Supreme Court ruling, we'll find out in the next few weeks what the public most likely thinks of today's development. In the meantime, here are a few of the biggest mysteries in health-legislation opinion polling:
1. OVERTURN THE LAW, SO WE CAN COMPLAIN ABOUT IT. Poll respondents wanted the Supreme Court to overturn the law, according to the latest reliable survey, but that poll and another showed Americans would be displeased with any outcome.
NBC-Wall Street Journal (June 20-24) found that 37 percent would be pleased if the court overturned the law, while 22 percent would be disappointed. The converse question supported those findings: 35 percent said they'd be disappointed if the court upheld the law (as it did), while 28 percent said they'd be pleased.
Note that neither option would satisfy a majority. Pew Research Center found roughly the same thing: in an April survey, slim majorities (51 percent) said they'd be unhappy if the court upheld the law or invalidated the mandate only; still, more people (48 percent) would be unhappy if the court thew out the whole law. In other words: Regardless of how the Supreme Court ruled, Pew predicted a plurality of unhappiness.
Oh, and when asked about Congress, the public prefers expanding or keeping the law (47 percent) to repealing and/or replacing it (39 percent), according to May polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation, despite opposing the law in the same poll (44 percent to 37 percent).
2. I LIKE MY HEALTH CARE, BUT I HATE THE SYSTEM. In the latest ABC-Washington Post survey (June 20-24), respondents practically raved about the quality of health care they receive (75 percent favorable, 22 percent unfavorable), while they were sour on the current health-care system (39 percent favorable, 56 percent unfavorable).
3. OBAMA-DEMS VS. ROMNEY-GOP. While all major polls show opposition to the law, the public still seems to trust the president and his party more on health care, although respondents are lukewarm on everyone.
In the June NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 41 percent said the Democratic Party would "do a better job … dealing with health care," while 28 percent said the GOP would handle health care better.
ABC-Washington Post polling in May found weak support for Mitt Romney's call to repeal the law, with respondents split 40 percent to 40 percent.
In ABC-Washington Post polling from May, respondents sided with Obama on the issue: 48 percent said Obama would do a better job "dealing with health care policy," while 38 percent said Romney would do a better job, ABC's Gary Langer noted recently, again, despite consistently opposing his overhaul in ABC's polling.
4. ON PASSAGE, HEALTH OVERHAUL GOT A BUMP. People didn't like health changes when Congress voted on it but, once it passed, Gallup found that the law briefly became popular. On March 22, the day after Congress passed the Affordable Care Act into law late on a Sunday night, Gallup conducted a one-day poll and found near-majority support (49 percent called it a good thing, while 40 percent called it a bad thing). Reacting to Congress's vote, 50 percent said they were pleased or enthusiastic, while 42 percent said they were disappointed or angry.
A week later, the law was unpopular again, according to a Gallup poll released March 30 (47 percent called it a good thing, while 50 percent called it a bad thing). Here's the trajectory of Gallup's good-bad question at the time, with polling dates:
March 4-7: -1 March 22: +9 March 26-28: -3
This suggests that health case changes could enjoy another several-day renaissance, now that the Supreme Court has lent its approval.
5. WHAT DO WE WANT? THE PUBLIC OPTION! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NEVER! As As Congress hashed out the details of the law, perhaps the biggest sticking point was the public option, and whether people really liked it.
In the fall of 2009, a slew of polls showed that respondents didn't like the plan being drafted by Congress, but that they did like the public option, even as congressional Democrats included the public option in those plans. For instance, an October ABC-Washington Post poll showed 57 percent support for the public option, while respondents opposed the overall plan (which didn't exist in any finalized state) 48 percent to 45 percent.
None of the numbers supported GOP claims that Americans opposed the bill because it asserted too much government control over the health-care system. Now, the law is unpopular mostly because the individual mandate is unpopular: In May, Kaiser Family Foundation polling showed broad support for the law's other provisions, and GOP protestations of governmental burden seem to have been vindicated, even as respondents told Kaiser they'd rather expand the law than do away with it completely.