Health Care, Partisanship and Polarization: Voter Reactions to Obama's Address to Congress


On February 24, 2009, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democracy Corps conducted “dial groups” or real-time focus group analysis of Obama’s address to Congress. The groups were comprised of swing voters in Henderson, Nevada and were evenly divided among Obama and McCain voters. The testing consisted of two parts: First, participants were asked to rank Obama’s speech in real-time, instantly gauging what he was saying on a 0 to 100 scale, with 0 being extremely negative and 100 being extremely positive. Second, participants rated Obama on a number of measures before and after the speech, to see how the speech changed their opinions.

In this special analysis we want to highlight a key section of the speech that was informative and may prove useful to those involved in the current health care debate -- the section on health care.

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Health Care Video Clip (WMV - 27 MB)

Executive Summary

On February 24, 2009, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democracy Corps conducted “dial groups” or real-time focus group analysis of Obama’s address to Congress. The groups were comprised of swing voters in Henderson, Nevada and were evenly divided among Obama and McCain voters. The testing consisted of two parts: First, participants were asked to rank Obama’s speech in real-time, instantly gauging what he was saying on a 0 to 100 scale, with 0 being extremely negative and 100 being extremely positive. Second, participants rated Obama on a number of measures before and after the speech, to see how the speech changed their opinions.

In this special analysis we want to highlight a key section of the speech that was informative and may prove useful to those involved in the current health care debate -- the section on health care.

Key Findings

1) Interestingly, the speech did not produce a noticeable shift in voters' confidence in President Obama on health care, unlike almost every other issue. (To view the shifts click here). Note that while it's valuable to look at the shifts that occurred, the overall numbers are not statistically representative of voters across the country (our focus group consisted of just 50 swing voters in Henderson, NV).

2) Reactions to Obama’s comments on health care display more partisan polarization than on other issues. One of Stan Greenberg's overall findings from this speech is the degree to which voters of all political stripes reacted positively to Obama. However, on health care, there seems to be much less of this unity. A few examples:

  • When the health care portion of Obama's speech hits a crescendo with him saying "health care reform cannot wait another year," Democrats jump to around 80 on the dials while Republicans stay down in the 50s.
  • The partisan gap actually increases when Obama says "quality, affordable health care for every American -- Democrats rise, Republicans drop and Independents stay in the middle.
  • When Obama talks about passing an expansion of children's health insurance, Democrats and Independents jump on the dials. Yet Republicans flatline around 50. Importantly, in this case, Independents rise with Democrats rather than staying in the middle.

3) Democrats, Independents and Republicans react positively when Obama talks about seeking a cure for cancer in our lifetime. Here, the dials overall jump to about 70. Of course, it's easier to find unity around aspirational goals that do not suggest potentially polarizing policies. Preventive care gets the dials to around 65, while health technology puts the dials in the low 50s (no one drops, but it also does not excite anyone).