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By Dave Umhoefer October 1, 2012

Chamber of Commerce says health care "public option" idea was "wildly unpopular"

"Are you listening," Tammy?

That’s the question posed in new campaign ad portraying Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin as indifferent to constituent pleas about Medicare.

In the spot, funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an actress posing as Baldwin eagerly deletes phone messages from regular folks calling her office line.

"Does it make you mad Tammy Baldwin voted to cut $716 billion from Medicare?" a narrator asks.

Meanwhile, the phone messages play:

"My mom depends on Medicare, why would you vote to cut it?"


"Keep your hands off my Medicare!"


The spot concludes by urging a vote against Baldwin, and asks, incredulously: "Can you believe Tammy even supported the wildly unpopular public option?"

We’re familiar with the "cut Medicare" claim, which Republicans and allies have leveled since the 2010 "Obamacare" health reform law passed with support from Democrats including Baldwin, a House member.

In one example, the Chamber of Commerce said "seniors will see $500 billion in Medicare cuts to fund Obamacare." That was rated Mostly False by PolitiFact Florida, which found that "Medicare spending is still set to increase, just not at as high a rate as originally anticipated." (The difference -- first estimated at $500 billion, now at $716 billion -- helps pay for other parts of the law).

Remember the so-called "public option?"

That’s what we’re looking at here: Did Baldwin vote for something that was "wildly unpopular"?

The idea -- ultimately left out of the bill -- was to create government-run health insurance to compete with private plans. The public option was an alternative to a "single payer system" or so called "Medicare for all." It was floated in part to appease more liberal Democrats who were critical of the bill’s reliance on private health insurers.

We rated Mostly True a claim by GOP Senate candidate Tommy Thompson that Baldwin "wants a health care system that is completely government controlled" and goes beyond ObamaCare. In that item, we noted Baldwin favored a public option or a single-payer system.

But the thrust of the claim was that the public option was "wildly unpopular." That is, Baldwin took a position most people at the time opposed.

We asked the U.S. Chamber, which wants to repeal the health care law, for backup for its claim. The group cited two public opinion surveys: An NBC News poll (August 2009) found a 47 percent plurality against the public option and a Rasmussen Reports voters’ poll (July 2009) showed only 35 percent support.

But what about other polls taken at the time?

We turned to the archives of the respected Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, which maintains a huge database mostly of media and commercial polls.

With help from Roper, we found 32 poll questions that asked directly about the public option from April 2009 to March 2010, when the law passed. They were from polls by or for Gallup, Bloomberg, the Kaiser Family Foundation, NBC/Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Independent Women’s Forum, CBS, the Democracy Corps, ABC/Washington Post and others.

In other words, mostly polls by or for the mainstream media and established polling organizations, with a sprinkling of surveys for groups with ideological leanings on the left and right.

Here’s what we found:

-- Of the 32 polls, support for the public option outweighed opposition in 28 of them.

-- Across those 28 polls, the average size of the group that favored the option was 57 percent. The opposition group averaged 38 percent in those polls.

-- There were four polls in which opposition was stronger than support; 53 percent was the average size of the negative group in those polls. One was the NBC poll pointed out to us by the Chamber of Commerce.
The Rasmussen poll did not turn up in our search. But it did show -- as the Chamber said -- only 35 percent of likely voters supported a public option. In the poll, 50 percent said they opposed it.

Now, we’re sure we didn’t look track down every poll or poll question taken on this topic. But the clear conclusion from a deep dive into the polls is that opinion leaned pretty strongly in favor of a public option.

Beyond that, there is no evidence for the Chamber’s claim of "wildly unpopular" -- the highest negative rating they sent us as back up was 50 percent.

The Chamber told us that, polling aside, the public option was "deeply unpopular" in the business community, its primary constituency. That may be true, but the claim made in the ad focused on the opinions of regular folks -- the ones dialing up Baldwin.

A final note: The Chamber of Commerce, as well as Republican critics of the polling, say that when pollsters drilled down, support for a public option waned as people heard details or were presented with possible ramifications.

We noticed that as well in some surveys. But a significant number of people’s support for Obama’s reform plan overall was conditioned on his including a public option.

Our rating

The Chamber terms the Baldwin-supported public option "wildly unpopular."

That’s way off target based on a broad look at surveys taken during the health care debate. The public option was far more popular than not, though some of that support was fickle.

We rate the group’s claim False.

Our Sources

US Chamber of Commerce, campaign TV ad, "Wisconsin: voted to cut Medicare," Sept. 19, 2012

Roper Center archive, 32 polls on public option, reviewed Sept. 25, 2012

Research help from Lois Timms-Ferrara, Associate Director, The Roper Center, University of Connecticut, Sept. 25, 2012

Email interview, Blair Latoff, senior director of communications, US Chamber of Commerce, Sept. 25, 2012

CNN Money, "What’s a public health plan anyway?" June 9, 2009

Email with John Kraus, Baldwin campaign spokesman, Sept. 21, 2012

Email with Charles Franklin, director, Marquette Law School Poll, Sept. 24, 2012

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Chamber of Commerce says health care "public option" idea was "wildly unpopular"

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