New poll highlights health care attitudes

The raucous protests at congressional town hall meetings have succeeded in fueling opposition to proposed health care bills among some Americans, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds — particularly the independents who tend to be at the center of political debates.

In a survey of 1,000 adults taken Tuesday, 34% say the sometimes heated protests at sessions held by members of Congress have made them more sympathetic to the protesters' views; 21% say they are less sympathetic.

Independents by 2-1, 35%-16%, say they are more sympathetic to the protesters now.

The findings are bad news for President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders, who have scrambled to respond to town halls marked by aggressive questions and noisy demonstrations by those opposed to plans to overhaul the health care system.

The hometown sessions have grabbed public attention: seven in 10 polled say they're following news about them very or somewhat closely.

"They're having an effect because they're an important part of the conversation about what is happening with health care," says pollster David Winston, an adviser to Republican congressional leaders.

Democrat Jim Kessler, a Capitol Hill veteran now at the think tank Third Way, questions whether the effect would last.

"Right now these protesters are beating up on members of Congress, and members of Congress are the least sympathetic people on earth," he says. "But there's a point where people say, 'OK, this is not the way I would like to see decisions made in this country.' "

Among key findings:

• A 57% majority of those surveyed, including 6 in 10 independents, say a major factor behind the protests are concerns that average citizens had well before the meetings took place; 48% say efforts by activists to create organized opposition to the health care bills are a major factor.

• There's some tolerance for noisy disputes at town hall meetings. By 51%-41%, those surveyed say individuals making "angry attacks" on a health care bill reflected "democracy in action" rather than "abuse of democracy." However, by 59%-33% they say "shouting down supporters" of a health care bill was an abuse of democracy.

On that question, unlike most of the others, there isn't much of a partisan divide: 69% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans agree.