Tuesday’s Democratic debate featured yet another exchange pitting the supporters of single payer or “Medicare for All” (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) against competitors who’d prefer a more incremental approach focused on creating a public option (largely Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar).* This time, the sniping mostly focused on whether taxes would have to go up to pay for “Medicare for All” (Warren was hesitant to admit it, but they will, though the pro camp says families will save money on copays and deductibles), and whether it could realistically pass.
Aside from the tone—everyone involved seemed a bit testier than usual—not much was new. But based on some new polling, it seems like these exchanges may be cumulatively hurting “Medicare for All’s” public popularity.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest Health Care Tracking poll, a small majority of adults still say they would favor putting all Americans on a single national health plan, with 51 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. But the margin of support has shrunk significantly from the beginning of this year, when as many as 57 percent backed such a proposal, and only 37 percent were opposed.
Recent polling by other organizations has shown even lower levels of support for a single-payer system. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey last month found just 41 percent said they backed one, with 56 percent against, while a Fox News poll found 46 percent in favor and 48 percent against. But polling results on health care can be extremely sensitive to how the question is phrased. What makes the Kaiser Family Foundation survey interesting is that it’s been asking the public the same version of its question for more than two years now—“Do you favor or oppose having a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare-for-all, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan?”—giving us a picture of how public opinion has evolved. And it suggests that as single payer has become a more contentious political topic during the presidential campaign, it has lost a bit of its shine.
That seems to be the case across parties. Overall, 71 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of independents, and 28 percent of Republicans favor “Medicare for All,” according to Kaiser. But support is down across all three, while opposition is up. It’s a little tricky to read the trends, because Kaiser’s polling results have a pretty high margin of error when broken down by party (6 percent in the latest survey). Here’s the trend for Democrats, whose enthusiasm for single payer seems to have weakened a bit after the first presidential debates in June.
None of this is especially surprising. The phrase “Medicare for All” tended to poll well early on, but its popularity tended to drop once respondents were told it would require them to give up their private insurance. That specific issue has been front and center during the Democratic debates and may have eroded some enthusiasm for the concept. Pure partisanship has probably kicked in a bit as well; as the primary campaign has worn on, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents may have come to associate the idea with Democratic candidates, leading them to reject it.
There is some good news for progressives, though: While voters might be feeling a bit less eager about single payer, support for a public health insurance option seems to be widening, with 73 percent of Americans in favor, and 24 percent opposed (even a majority of Republicans approve).
To be clear, these polls don’t necessarily mean Warren and Sanders are losing the health care debate among Democrats. While single payer’s support might be softening within the party, it’s still popular, and their support for it may be a net positive for their campaigns. But as far as the general electorate goes, both candidates seem to have hitched themselves to an idea that’s getting less popular the more voters hear about it. Say what you will about the moderate squishes, but they’re pushing a proposal that an overwhelming majority of Americans seem to love.
Correction, Oct. 15, 2019: This post originally misspelled Amy Klobuchar’s last name.