Source: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner
Client: Democracy Corps

Executive Summary

As the Congress moves to floor action on health care reform, we wanted to highlight some important language and narrative issues - both for producing more intense support and en-gagement and for moving swing-independent voters. This memo focuses on the issue of preserving Medicare, even as Medicare is a source of funding for health care reform, and shows the results of tests on key parts of President Obama’s joint session address through the immediate dial reactions of 50 independents and swing voters in Denver, Colorado, the night of the address.

Key Findings

  • Dedication to preserving Medicare exists across the partisan divide. Perhaps one of the most consistent components of our health care research over the past several months is the strength of messaging centered on protecting Medicare benefits. Statements geared toward protecting and expanding Medicare benefits continuously rank at or near the top of “most convincing reasons to support reform” - among not only seniors, but voters as a whole. The dial results of the president’s speech further emphasize this issue’s salience regardless of party affiliation, at least in basic principle. Obama’s introduction of Medicare as “a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next” receives near equal ratings - all in the high 60s or low 70s on the 100-point scale - across the partisan spectrum.
  • Presidential pledge not to raid the Medicare trust fund solicits solid response. With speculation about cuts in Medicare spending coming out early in the discussion, it was vital that the president address the specifics as to what those cuts mean and where, exactly, they will come from within the Medicare system. Obama’s vow that “not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this [health care reform] plan” was a strong start and caused the dials to increase with Democrats (moving up to 75), independents (moving to the high 60s again) and even Republicans (rising from about 50 to 60). With opposition among sen-iors dropping sharply in recent weeks, there is reason to believe these reassurances have had a significant impact.
  • Both Democrats and independents respond equally well to reduction of waste and inefficiency. As Obama notes that Medicare cuts will be limited to eliminating “the hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud, as well as unwarranted subsidies... that go to insurance companies” the dials rise slowly and level out with Democrats again at about 70, independents in the mid 60s and Republicans near 60. As the president closes the Medicare discussion with the assertion that “reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan,” the Republicans express their ideological disagreements with numbers dipping from around 50 to 40, while Democrats rise just slightly. However, independents show a solid rise, moving from around 60 to 67 to match the level of support from Democrats.
  • Hammering the scary stories and those who tried to privatize Medicare produces Democratic spike. The President put the spotlight on the attempt to scare voters with stories about “how your benefits will be cut” and hammers the “same folks who are spreading these tall tales” for voting to privatize Medicare before vowing that this will never happen on his watch and that he will protect Medicare. At this point Democrats spike strongly, moving from the mid 50s to the upper 70s, while independents increase, but less dramatically.
  • Tough language on insurance subsidies and Medicare privatization deters Republicans.The president’s introduction of stronger rhetoric - insurance companies using subsidies to “pad their profits” over improving “the care of seniors” - pushes Republicans away (Republican scores immediately drop 12 points from 63 to 51). After a brief rebound produced by discussing prescription drug expansion, Republicans again drop to the low 40s as the president takes an aggressive stand against the “scary stories.” The Republicans’ sour reception remains even through the invocations of bipartisanship that close the section, proving not enough to bring the Republican’s score beyond 47.
  • Eliminating the prescription drug gap an important factor in Medicare discussion. We have long argued that to pass health care reform, supporters must show seniors that there is something in it for them. This must go beyond promises to maintain Medicare as it is by including an added “show me the money” benefit. In this case, the promise to close the prescription drug “donut hole” that exists in Medicare continuously proves to be successful in framing Medicare protection and expansion with the health care reform debate. This is further bolstered by the results of these dials. Obama says, “We can use some of these savings to fill the gap in coverage that forces too many seniors to pay thousands of dollars a year out of their own pockets for prescription drugs.” This applause-soliciting statement garners high dial ratings across the spectrum - 74 among Democrats and 71 overall, with Republicans matching the overall rating and even surpassing independents (who reach 69).
  • President's strength of message creates substantial shift in key seniors-focused attribute. With this section of the speech, Obama appears to have met his goal of reassuring voters on seniors’ issues. Following the speech, two-thirds of respondents disagreed with the statement that his health care reform plan would “hurt seniors by cutting Medicare,” while just 20 percent agreed. This is a substantial shift from the measurement before the address, when respondents agreed with the statement by an 8-point margin with 40 percent saying this phrase described Obama’s health care plan well.

Click here to read our full analysis on the groups.

Click the video link below to view the dials for this portion of the speech:


On September 9, 2009, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democracy Corps conducted “dial groups” or real-time focus group analysis of President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on health care. The groups were comprised of swing voters in Denver, Colorado and were evenly divided among those who initially supported and initially opposed Obama’s health care plan, with an almost equal division between Obama and McCain voters. The testing con-sisted of two parts: First, participants were asked using a dial-meter 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.