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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman September 23, 2013

Marco Rubio says public favors defunding Obamacare but opposes government shutdown

Sen. Marco Rubio is among the big names in the Republican Party salivating at the chance to defund Obamacare.

But Florida’s Republican senator says there’s no need to shut down the federal government over it, and conveniently enough, he says the American public agrees with him on both fronts.

After the U.S. House of Representatives passed a short-term continuing resolution to defund Obamacare and keep the federal government open, Rubio issued a press release on Sept. 20, 2013:

"The American people support defunding Obamacare and oppose shutting down the government. The House voted today to follow the will of the American people and the Senate should now follow suit."

We decided to examine recent poll results to determine if Rubio correctly characterized the public’s view on Obamacare and a government shutdown.

Polls about Obamacare

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a healthy policy think tank, has repeatedly asked respondents since 2011 if they approve or disapprove of cutting off funding for the health care law, formally called the Affordable Care Act. The most recent poll, in mid August 2013, showed that 57 percent disapproved of cutting funding, while 36 percent approved. Those numbers have changed little since 2011.

A few days after Rubio made his claim, CNBC released a summary of a poll that found Americans oppose defunding Obamacare by a plurality of 44 percent to 38 percent. (Due to the timing, we will not take this poll into account for rating Rubio’s claim, but we’re mentioning it since it is on point.)

CNBC’s pollsters noted that people particularly oppose defunding Obamacare if it would lead to a government shutdown or other dramatic outcomes.

"Opposition to defunding increases sharply when the issue of shutting down the government and defaulting is included. In that case, Americans oppose defunding 59 percent to 19 percent, with 18 percent of respondents unsure. The final 4 percent is a group of people who want to defund Obamacare, but become unsure when asked if they still hold that view if it means shutting down the government," stated the report.

So where might Rubio get the idea that the majority of Americans support defunding Obamacare? We contacted spokespersons for Rubio for a response and didn’t hear back.

But we did find an August poll released by the conservative group Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, which showed that 57 percent support defunding Obamacare. The poll done by Basswood Research also found that about 68 percent support temporarily halting funding to make sure the provisions "do not do more harm than good." The poll was conducted in 10 House districts -- six currently held by Republicans.

But the Heritage poll was widely criticized as a push poll, including by the Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, who called it "Heritage’s Junk Poll."

Still, many recent polls show either a majority or plurality of Americans are critical of Obamacare depending on how the question is asked. How is it that these people don’t also want to see it defunded?

For an answer we turned to Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University.

Not surprisingly, the answer is in the wording.

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When respondents are asked if they favor "defunding" Obamacare, they oppose that, Blendon said. But when respondents are asked if they support repealing the law, they support some type of repeal.

For example, a July 2013 CBS poll found 39 percent support repealing the entire law and 18 percent support repealing the mandate.

While Americans think the law spends too much money, they don’t want to cut it back to zero funding. The individual mandate is probably the most unpopular part of the bill, Blendon said. However, "defunding doesn’t sound like a way to get rid of the individual mandate -- it sounds like you’re taking money away from sick people."

If President Barack Obama wants to keep the bill as is and Republicans want to repeal it, Blendon said, then the public "is in the middle, which is to keep some and get rid of some. ... Neither party is giving them exactly what it is they want."

Polls about government shutdown

As for a government shutdown, the polls we found -- whether by an impartial media outlet or the right or the left -- showed the majority of Americans opposed.

A CNN/ORC poll conducted Sept. 6-8 found that if the federal government had to shut down for a few days, 38 percent said it would cause "major problems," and 11 percent said it would cause a "crisis." When asked about a shutdown lasting for a few weeks, about three-fourths said it would cause major problems or a crisis.

A poll done for Republican members of Congress found a significant majority oppose a government shutdown. A poll done for the conservative Crossroads GPS found that despite opposition to Obamacare, voters say it’s a bad idea to risk shutting down the government.

"Only tea party backers embrace the idea, while independents reject it two-to-one," stated the Crossroads GPS poll.

A poll for the liberal Huffington Post found a majority believe a shutdown would hurt the economy.

Finally, we found one poll, a Washington Post/ABC News poll from Sept. 12-15,  that came close to combining the moves of defunding Obamacare and a government shutdown, but it didn’t actually use the phrase "government shutdown."

Instead, it asked if people favored or opposed the health care law (not defunding it) and then asked those who opposed the law if they favored "shutting down major activities of the federal government."

According to the Post, the poll found that "only about one-quarter of Americans (27 percent) want Congress to shut down the government rather than pass a budget that funds Obamacare -- a threat that is inherent in some GOP lawmakers' pledges not to support any such budget. (Another 20 percent oppose Obamacare but don't want to risk a shutdown, while 5 percent oppose the law but aren't sure what they want to come from budget negotiations.)"

Our ruling

Rubio said, "The American people support defunding Obamacare and oppose shutting down the government."

Rubio makes it sound like he has support from the public for his main objective, which is defunding Obamacare. He doesn’t.

When asking the public about Obamacare, word choice matters, and "defund" leads to a different result than "repeal." While the law isn’t popular, a recent Kaiser poll found 57 percent opposed cutting off funding.

On his second point, he’s right that most people tell pollsters they don’t want a government shutdown. But we’ll point out that both sides in the budget battle in Congress say they don’t want a shutdown.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio press release, "Rubio hails passage of bill to defund Obamacare, keep government open," Sept.  20, 2013, Health policy and Budget, taxes and economic policy, Accessed Sept. 23, 2013

PolitiFact, "Paul Ryan says government shutdown wouldn’t sideline Obamacare," Aug. 8, 2013

CNBC, "Most Americans against defunding Obamacare: Survey," Sept. 23, 2013

Rasmussen Report, "51% favor government shutdown until Congress cuts health care funding," Sept. 17, 2013

Heritage Action, "House majority not at stake over defunding Obamacare," Aug. 14, 2013

Heritage Action, "Poll toplines: House majority not at stake over defund of Obamacare," Aug. 7, 2013

Talking Points Memo, "Heritage’s fun with ‘defund’ Obamacare polling numbers," Aug. 29, 2013

Salon, "Right-wing push poll accidently finds Obamacare popular," Aug. 14, 2013

Slate, "The pure logic behind the Heritage Action Obamacare push poll," Aug. 14, 2013

Washington Post’s Right Turn blog, "Heritage’s Junk Poll," Aug. 15, 2013

Washington Post/ABC News, Poll, Sept. 20, 2013

Washington Post’s The Fix blog, "GOP base to Congress: shut it down (if you have to)," Sept. 20, 2013

Real Clear Politics, "Repeal of health care law: Favor/oppose," Accessed Sept. 23, 2013

Crossroads GPS, "Crossroads GPS survey on Obamacare policy options: Key Senate and House targets," Aug. 11-15, 2013

Interview, Robert J. Blendon professor and Senior Associate Dean for Policy Translation and Leadership Development at the Harvard School of Public Health, Sept. 23, 2013

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Marco Rubio says public favors defunding Obamacare but opposes government shutdown

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