The Health Care Ad War In Wisconsin Johnson Uses Polls Feingold Uses People

Bill Scher

Yesterday I highlighted several campaign ads directly and indirectly defending a vote for the health care reform law. These ads are airing on the grounds that you can’t win an argument without making one.

One of those ads — Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold’s — has drawn an indirect response from his opponent, CEO Ron Johnson.

It’s up to the voters to decide which argument is strongest, but I’m struck by Johnson’s decision to explicitly use polls to tell voters what they think.

The ad asserts: “A majority of Wisconsinites opposed the government takeover of health care” with a graphic citing a poll result of “55% oppose.”

Politifact Wisconsin deemed that claim “False” on several counts: the health care reform law is not a “government takeover,” the polls the campaign cited did not use the words “government takeover,” the polls cited are of subjectively defined “likely voters” and not all of Wisconsin, and polls show that some people disapprove the law because there isn’t enough government involvement.

Are these just technical quibbles? Is Johnson’s underlying point still correct?

No.

Anyone who has closely followed health care polling this year knows that there has a discrepancy between support for “the bill,” which has been tepid, and support for the key provisions of the bill, which have consistently polled well.

Any dispassionate analysis of all the polling data has to conclude that, at minimum, much of the public has fuzzy and conflicted feelings about the final law. Further, recent polling show many people are still flat-out confused about what is in the law. Making grand pronouncements with cherry-picked poll data is sure to miss the big picture.

Now, cherry-picking poll numbers is not unusual in the talking point wars politicians regularly play. That’s part of how politicians “work the refs,” cajoling reporters to frame stories on terms favorable to the politicians.

But to use cherry-picked poll numbers in a campaign ad? That’s a whole different ball game.

Campaign ads are about communicating to voters, not reporters. To literally put words in the mouths of voters carries great risk of backlash.

It’d be one thing if the poll numbers did represent a crystal clear sentiment on the part of voters. But in this case the poll numbers cited by Johnson clearly do not.

So when a voter sees the Johnson ad alongside the Feingold ad — which uses real people instead of polls to talk about how the new law helps children with pre-existing conditions — they may not appreciate being told what they supposedly think.

The risk for Democrats who are not defending their health reform vote is that you can’t win an argument without making one.

The Republican Johnson is taking the same risk with his ad.

Johnson is not making an argument about why it’s wrong for our government to ban discrimination against sick kids. He is throwing up a poll number in hopes of skirting the need to have that argument.

Of course, Johnson can still win. Perhaps opponents of health care reform are more likely to turn out. Perhaps the race will hinge upon different issues altogether.

But his health care response ad, talking at voters instead of engaging them, strikes me as a dangerous risk.

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