Public Ignorance about Obamacare Revisited

The recent Kaiser poll on health care linked by co-blogger Jonathan Adler reveals more evidence of public ignorance about Obamacare. Most notably, 45% of respondents say they have heard “nothing” about the health care reform law’s insurance exchanges, and 34% say they have heard “only a little.” This despite the fact that the exchanges are one of the most important and controversial elements of the new law. The refusal of many state governments to set up state exchanges has complicated the implementation of Obamacare and led to ongoing controversy. If most of the public has heard little or nothing about the exchanges, it is not because the information hasn’t been publicized by the media and other sources, but because most people have chosen to ignore it out of rational ignorance. This result is consistent with previous polls showing widespread ignorance about Obamacare. For example, Kaiser’s April tracking poll found that 42% of the public does not even realize that Obamacare is still the law.

The new Kaiser poll also shows that many people react differently to the law when it is described as “Obamacare” then when it is referred to as the “health reform law.” 58 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of the latter, but 73 percent approve of Obamacare. By contrast, Republicans are more likely to disapprove of Obamacare (86 percent) than the health care reform law (76 percent). This too may be an indication of ignorance. Politically aware people surely realize that the law is associated with Obama whether it is labeled as Obamacare or not. Some percentage of the public, however, either does not know that or tends to forget unless reminded. And that percentage may well be higher than the 10-15 percent or so whose opinion of “Obamacare” differs from their opinion of the “health care reform law.” Presumably, some of those unaware of Obama’s association with the law don’t change their minds when reminded of it as seems to be the case with most independents.

Obviously, the partisan variation in reactions to “Obamacare” as opposed to “health reform law” is also evidence of partisan bias in the evaluation of political information, which is common on other issues as well. A substantial fraction of the public evaluates the same policy differently when they think of it as being associated with their own party than when they associate it with the opposition or with neither side. That fraction is likely larger than the percentage who have a different view of “Obamacare” than “health reform.” There is likely to be partisan bias among many respondents who already knew of Obama’s association with the law as well. Indeed, biased evaluation of information is actually strongest among those voters most knowledgeable about and most interested in politics.

Unfortunately, this data comes too late to be incorporated in my forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance. But I do discuss some earlier evidence of public ignorance about Obamacare there. I also situate the issue in the context of the broader problem of voter ignorance and biased evaluation of information.

Finally, it’s worth noting that “Obamacare” is actually slightly more popular than “the health reform law.” The public disapproves of the former by a 47-42 margin, while the latter is opposed by a 43-35 plurality. Thus, referring to the law as “Obamacare” actually makes it more popular, even if slightly. An ironic result, given the origins of the term as an epithet invented by the bill’s opponents.

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