Poll Shows Democrats Losing Medicaid Debate in Virginia; Democratic Pollster Calls BS

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 25 2014 9:30 AM

Poll Shows Democrats Losing Medicaid Debate in Virginia; Democratic Pollster Calls BS

Back in November, after Terry McAuliffe won Virginia's gubernatorial election with less room to spare than polling had suggested, pundits asked whether Obamacare had closed the race. Ken Cuccinelli, the defeated Republican candidate, insisted that was true. Geoff Garin, McAuliffe's pollster, shook his head at the meme. McAuliffe had run on a promise to expand Medicaid, and this had built an advantage, whether or not us hacks wanted to see it. (Cuccinelli referrered to the Medicaid plan, on the trail, as "expanding Obamacare.") Democrats hoped that the state's Republican House of Delegates would feel the pressure, and pass a budget that included the expansion—accepting money that would help McAuliffe's campaign budget calculations add up.

Republicans didn't go along with the plan. For months, as in other states, the local chapter of David Koch's Americans for Prosperity had been pressuring them to turn down the Medicaid expansion.

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This year, emboldened by a win in a special election for an open Democratic delegate seat, Republicans held fast. AFP went on the air, battering the expansion. And today, finally, comes a story that would seem to contradict Garin's theory. "A poll from Christopher Newport University's Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy shows Virginia voters oppose Medicaid expansion 53 percent to 41 percent," reports WAMU's Michael Pope. "In February, the university found the majority of voters favored Medicaid expansion 56 to 38."

Did the Kochs and Republicans win? I ran the question by Geoff Garin.

The result is totally driven by the way the question is framed and the information in the question, rather than a reflection of what voters might be hearing about the issue on their own. Here is the question they asked in this poll:
Democrats propose to subsidize private insurance for 400,000 uninsured and low income Virginians by using federal Medicaid money that would otherwise not come to Virginia. Republicans oppose this expansion because they fear the federal Medicaid money will not come as promised, and also say the current Medicaid program has too much waste and abuse and needs reformed before it is expanded.
Of course, that is not how Democrats would describe their position on this. In the previous poll by CNU, they asked the question in a more neutral way and got a much more positive result: 56% support, 38% oppose. I think it is pretty likely that if they asked the question the same way this time they would have gotten a more similar result. Here is the previous wording:
Medicaid is a health care program for families and individuals with low income that is funded by both federal and state tax dollars. Currently, Virginia is faced with a decision about whether to expand the Medicaid program to cover an additional 400,000 mostly working poor Virginians who are uninsured. In general, do you support Medicaid expansion or oppose it?
The most important result in the new poll is that 71% want both sides to compromise, as opposed to preferring that one or the other side “back down.”  The Republicans have no version of compromise on this issue…their only play is “just say no.” McAuliffe has offered a variety of compromises short of his original proposal to the legislature, and I think he is likely to have the high ground when the issue is litigated in a more higher profile way than is currently the case. 

If you don't believe him, here are the poll wordings. From February:

And from this week:

Sure, that's a dramatically different question—it makes it clear where the parties stand (which polarizes the numbers in a manner not seen in February) and raises the specter of Medicaid fraud and abuse. But the question's only being asked because the anti-expansion forces dug in. It's exactly like what happened with the state-based exchanges. Once an aspect of the ACA becomes partisan—once Republicans in a state are told that they can bring down the law if they hold their spears just so—it stops being popular enough to pass.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.