Two polls last week reported very different public reactions to cutting spending on Medicare. In one released Friday by CBS News and The New York Times, less than half — 45 percent — said they were unwilling to cut Medicare to reduce the deficit. But a Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier in the week showed 78 percent opposed to “cutting spending on Medicare” for a similar purpose. What gives?

Over at the National Journal, Steven Shepard highlights some possible differences between the polls, including when they were conducted in terms of the policy debate, question wording and question ordering. It’s the last of these explanations that may be the most compelling, that is, question ordering and context.

Before the “willingness” question in the CBS/NYT poll, there were three questions about Medicare and the budget. People were asked whether Medicare’s costs justify its benefits, whether it would be necessary to make changes to Medicare to reduce the deficit and whether it would be necessary to increase taxes “on people like you” to reduce the deficit.

Following these three questions, 48 percent of those polled said they’d be willing to reduce spending on Medicare. That was a sharp departure from a March CBS News poll that got 76 percent unwilling to the same Medicare question, with no preceding budget questions.

A poll from McClatchy and Marist among registered voters the same week found results consistent with the Post-ABC poll. The question ordering and context were similar to the Post-ABC poll, but their question on cutting Medicare also included cutting Medicaid as a way to deal with the federal budget. Eighty percent opposed such a measure. (The Post-ABC poll asked about cutting these two programs separately with large opposition to both.)

Changing Medicare – Another difference emerges between the Post-ABC poll and CBS/New York Times poll on changing the nature of the Medicare program. In the CBS/NYT poll, 47 percent approve of changing Medicare to a program in which “the government helps seniors purchase private health insurance,” echoing elements of how Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) approached Medicare funding in his budget proposal.

But a Post-ABC question finds only 34 percent preferring to change Medicare to a program in which seniors would “receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy.”

Some advocates of changing Medicare recoil at the “voucher” analogy, but beyond the specific question wording differences, question order may again play a role.

The CBS/NYT question followed those listed above, and two more about deficit concerns. One of these is a forced choice between reducing Medicare benefits or raising taxes, the second a choice of four ways to reduce Medicare spending as a way to reduce the deficit: raising the age to receive benefits, raising premiums for all, raising premiums for those with high income or covering fewer treatments.

With these four options freshly in mind, the alternative of making Medicare a system where the government “helps seniors purchase private health insurance” may gain appeal.