“There is no question we’ll have to act [on health care]. It’s the No. 1 issue in America. The polls are clear.”
— Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), quoted in an article in Vox, April 18, 2018

Politicians are often eager to cite polling as a reason for action. In an article that highlighted a proposal by Murphy and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to allow individuals and large employers to purchase health insurance coverage through Medicare, Murphy described health care as the “number one issue” in America.

Does polling back up that assertion?

The Facts

Laura Maloney, a spokeswoman for Murphy, directed us to a number of polls. She first provided four examples, but three — a Bloomberg News poll, a Morning Consult poll and an NBC News exit poll from the Virginia governor’s race — were from 2017. They were taken as Republicans were trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, so health care was certainly in the news at the time.

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The fourth poll, a HuffPost/YouGov poll from April, was more on target. Asked to choose their two top issues from a list, 30 percent of registered voters picked health care. But gun policies and immigration were close behind, at 25 percent each, with the economy at 24 percent. There was a clearly partisan divide on some of these issues — 43 percent of Republicans picked immigration compared with 10 percent of Democrats — but both Democrats and Republicans rated health care highly.

In a follow-up email, Maloney also cited a Gallup poll that asked Americans about their “top worry.” In that survey, 55 percent of respondents said they worry “a great deal” about the availability and affordability of health care, more than 14 other issues that Gallup asked about. Crime, federal spending and the availability of guns followed, tied at 51 percent.

“Top worry,” however, is not the same as “top issue.” In fact, there is another poll by Gallup that is more often cited for its analysis of “the top problem” — and it comes to a starkly different conclusion. This Gallup poll is based on an open-ended question in which people were asked, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today.” Gallup conducts the poll once a month.

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Just 4 percent volunteered “health care” or “hospitals,” far behind “dissatisfaction with government” (23 percent), immigration-illegal aliens (15 percent), race relations (7 percent) gun control/guns (6 percent), economy (5 percent) and unifying the country (4 percent). Health care had been in third place, with 9 percent, in November but faded as a top concern.

In a Pew Research poll from January, “reducing health care costs” ranked fourth, after terrorism, education and the economy and just before Social Security. The poll shows only a slight increase over the past year.

Finally, Quinnipac’s poll in March asked for “the most important issue” from a list of five issues. This is not as flexible as the other polls, but health care narrowly edged the economy, 23 percent to 22 percent.

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The Pinocchio Test

Rather than the polls being clear, it’s actually quite murky. Murphy can point to a poll that shows health care at the top of the list. But other polls — including Gallup’s monthly open-ended question that is widely cited for identifying the top problem — show that health care is lower on the list of concerns.

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Clearly, the methodology of a poll makes a difference in the result. The open-ended nature of the Gallup poll might get closest to what concerns Americans have when they do not have to choose from a list.

Murphy may be convinced that health care is what will motivate voters in the coming year. But based the polls, he might be fooling himself.

One Pinocchio

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One Pinocchio
“There is no question we’ll have to act [on health care]. It’s the No. 1 issue in America. The polls are clear.”
in an interview with Vox
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
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