The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A discredited 4-Pinocchio survey gets cited again on national television

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“Many employers are not hiring people because of Obamacare, 70 percent in some of the surveys of small businesses are saying that Obamacare is already harming their ability to hire people.”

— Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Feb. 9, 2014

Just yesterday we examined a Democratic-taking-point-that-won’t-die. Now it’s the GOP’s turn, once again on that favorite subject of Obamacare.

When we saw Portman’s remarks — a survey saying some 70 percent of small businesses blamed the health care law for harming their ability to hire — it sounded suspiciously like a survey that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had falsely touted last July — and which had earned Four Pinocchios.  The same survey later also earned Portman’s colleague Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) a “Pants on Fire” rating from PolitiFact.

Yet here it is, once again cited on national television. (Portman’s staff confirmed he was referring to the Chamber of Commerce survey.)

The Facts

There are so many things wrong with this survey that it is hard to know where to begin, but here’s a quick refresher course. We became interested in the Chamber’s “2nd Quarter Small Business Outlook,” conducted by Harris Interactive, when various Republican lawmakers claimed that it showed that 74 percent of small businesses would fire workers and cut hours because of the health care law. But’s here’s what went wrong:

  • The survey pretended to have a statistical margin of error, but it was really created through two on-line surveys that greatly limited the ability to generalize the results to all small businesses.
  • The Chamber failed to disclose that 83 percent of small businesses surveyed said they would not be affected by the employer mandate, meaning any results that were reported were based on a subsample of just 17 percent.
  • Once the possibility of multiple answers are accounted for, it turned out just  4.5 to 8.5 percent of small business executives surveyed said they will reduce hours or full-time staff in response to the employer mandate.

In other words, the 74-percent claim was at least an eight-fold exaggeration.

“We accurately quoted the study,” said Caitlin Dunn, Portman’s spokesman.  “The Chamber never provided us with any corrections, so we used this widely accredited source.  It also reflects what he has heard from business owners across Ohio.”

Dunn also pointed to another survey, by Public Opinion Strategies for the Chamber of Commerce and International Franchise Association, that shows that about 64 percent of small business franchise owners (such as owners of fast food and retail stores) believe the law will have a “negative impact” on their business. (The figure was lower — 53 percent — for non-franchise owners.)

We won’t get into the weeds of this study’s methodology, but this is not the same thing as what Portman asserted on television. “Negative impact” is relatively vague and, on specific questions, the results were not nearly as significant. Just 12 percent of non-franchise owners (and 31 percent of franchise owners) have reduced worker hours, while 12 percent of non-franchise businesses (and 27 percent of franchises) had replaced full-time workers with part-time workers.

All of these numbers are a far cry from “70 percent” for all small business owners.

The Pinocchio Test

There are certainly a number of anecdotal examples concerning the impact of the Affordable Care Act on small businesses, but as we have repeatedly noted, the actual data is still inconclusive. It will take some time before analysts can truly document the impact, especially if the administration keeps delaying portions of the employer mandate.

In the meantime, if a lawmaker is going to repeat the results of a Four-Pinocchio poll, he or she is going to earn Four Pinocchios. The Chamber of Commerce also should be ashamed that the same survey still sits, uncorrected, on its Web site, even though it appears the Chamber no longer issues this survey on a quarterly basis.

Four Pinocchios

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