‘Medicare For All’ May Not Be The Political Suicide Mission Moderates Say It Is

New polling suggests Medicare for All can withstand some of the most common attacks.

New polling from a left-leaning think tank casts doubt on a key part of the Democratic establishment’s conventional wisdom on health care, and could bolster progressive arguments that a candidate who supports universal single-payer coverage, or “Medicare for All,” could defeat President Donald Trump next November.

The progressive think tank Data For Progress tested some of the most common criticisms of Medicare for All ― that Americans would be forced to switch to a government-run health insurance plan, and that their taxes would likely go up. The survey of 5,881 registered voters, conducted in late November and early December, found Medicare for All was still regarded more favorably than not, even when voters were presented with the partisan attacks.

Fifty-one percent said they’d still support Medicare for All, which would move all Americans onto a single government-run health insurance plan, if it were to be paid for through employer and wealth taxes. Support dipped slightly if the program were to be paid through payroll taxes on individuals, but still Medicare for All remained more favorable than not by a margin of 47% to 42%.

“The numbers aren’t where [Medicare for All] advocates want to them to be, but they’re also not where people who think Medicare for All will lose Democrats the election say they are,” Sean McElwee, who runs Data For Progress, said. “There is a message that Trump could use that would reduce support for a Medicare for All candidate but it never reduces them below a comfortable margin.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking support for Medicare for All since 2017, found similar results. Fifty-three percent of adults said they support a national health plan, like Medicare for All, in November. That said, a larger share of Americans ― including, most notably, independents ― favor a public option plan over Medicare for All. Large majorities of Democrats support both plans, but among independent voters, 52% support Medicare for All, while 69% say they support a public option. 

The Data For Progress release complicates the claims of moderate candidates in the Democratic presidential primary, like Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have lately been declaring victory on health care. They, along with industry groups and centrist Democrats, have argued that Medicare for All is unpopular and that pursuing it could squander a key advantage for Democrats. Earlier this month, Biden told reporters the American people were with him on the issue. 

“I don’t think ... that’s where the center of the party is or the left or the right of the party,” Biden said, according to The Associated Press. “And I think ... people are gonna find some version of what I’ve been talking about for a long time, and it’s to build on Obamacare with a public option.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another presidential hopeful, has taken a recent dip in the polls, which is largely seen as a result of her proposal for how to finance Medicare for All. Her national polling numbers dropped from all-time highs in October, when she led the Democratic field, to third place by December — the same stretch of time her campaign became focused on health care. Buttigieg and Biden’s campaigns both attacked Warren for failing to find a way to cover the proposal’s $32 trillion price tag without raising taxes on the middle class, as she has promised. 

Meanwhile, Buttigieg, who has doubled down on his “Medicare For All Who Want It” plan, expanding the Affordable Care Act to include a public option with automatic enrollment, has seen his stock rise in early states. He’s been running ads attacking Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on health care in Iowa, championing the public option with the tag line “Makes More Sense.”

But the analysis that Medicare for All is too politically dangerous for the general election might be premature. Sanders, who popularized Medicare for All in 2016 and is its most strident advocate in the presidential field, remains the most trusted candidate on health care among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, according to the KFF polling. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted from Dec. 12 to Dec. 14 similarly found that Democrats and independents agree most with Sanders, followed by Warren, on health care.

Measuring public opinion around Medicare for All policy is complicated. Its association with Medicare ― one of the federal government’s most popular programs ― usually means it polls well at first glance. But as a massive government overhaul that would cost tens of trillions of dollars, it also presents numerous potential vulnerabilities.

Moderates argue those vulnerabilities are too much of a risk when it comes to what voters say is their top issue. “If we pursue a health care policy that people find scary or bad, then we could forfeit a natural advantage,” said Matt Bennett, one of the co-founders of Third Way, a centrist think tank. “The minute you fire one shot at [Medicare for All], it kind of falls off a cliff.”

The HuffPost/YouGov poll attempted to test how much Democrats’ advantage on health care might shrink if their nominee ran on Medicare for All. Among registered voters, 44% said they would support Medicare for All, while 42% opposed it.  

       

Asked if they would prefer Medicare for All or a GOP-sponsored alternative, 39% picked Medicare for All, while 37% backed a theoretical GOP plan. Asked if they would prefer sticking with the Affordable Care Act or a theoretical GOP plan, 44% wanted to stay with Obamacare, while 39% backed a GOP plan.

Some Democratic pollsters have examined the question in other ways. An October poll sponsored by the advocacy group Protect Our Care and conducted by Hart Research found that voters, by a 48% to 31% margin, would prefer that Democrats focus on working to “reduce excessive drug prices, protect people with preexisting conditions, and stop efforts by the Trump administration to roll back coverage” over seeking “major changes in the health insurance system to achieve universal health insurance.”

Democrats who are neutral in the primary are also increasingly arguing that the party would retain an advantage over Trump and Republicans on health care issues even if the nominee runs on Medicare for All. While not necessarily downplaying potential political drawbacks from Medicare for All, they argue that Trump’s positions ― which include his support for an unpopular Obamacare-repeal plan and his backing of a lawsuit aiming to kill the law ― will be toxic to voters regardless.

In the HuffPost poll, 52% of registered voters said they disapprove of Trump’s handling of health care, while just 38% approved of it. American voters have consistently looked down on Trump’s handling of the issue. The poll also found that voters still trust the Democratic Party more on health care by a 45% to 35% margin, though a significant chunk of voters remain undecided.  

“Democrats are arguing between Sprint and Verizon, when Donald Trump is offering the American people two cans and a piece of string,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who has consulted health care advocacy groups.

Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Dec. 12-14 among U.S. adults, including 364 Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

By Tara Golshan and Kevin Robillard