I've always thought that "national horserace" polls in presidential elections are silly, even though my firm must conduct them, too. We all learned dramatically in 2000 that the popular vote of the nation as a whole means nothing if a candidate doesn't carry the electoral vote -- and that means winning key "swing" states.
The same is true for national polls on issues such as healthcare reform. One that caught a lot of flack was a recent New York Times survey. It went to great pains to describe all of the details of a healthcare proposal that might be one component of all the current proposals facing Congress. The Times' wording of its poll question made "national healthcare" sound like candy canes and lemon drops. Not surprisingly, the poll produced a result that no one could swallow -- that well more than 70 percent of Americans favor the president's healthcare proposal.
The Times' survey may have been spot on for whatever world it polled in. But its results won't hold water in some of the critically important states where Senate Democrats -- who will be needed to pass any healthcare reform -- must attempt to stay popular.
Take North Carolina, for example. Our own InsiderAdvantage poll, conducted for the Southern Political Report, surveyed more than 800 registered voters in that state. The poll indicated that both incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr and the newly elected Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan are not exactly the toast of the town. Both have approval ratings of 39 percent. That's bad. Really bad.
For Hagan, the news should be a wake-up call. That's because the same poll showed Barack Obama with an approval rating of 50 percent in North Carolina. That's exactly where he was in November when he defeated John McCain. But Hagan has tumbled from a 53-percent victory in November to an undeniably low approval rating now. And it has happened quickly. So what gives?
Here is the answer: Congress has taken control of healthcare reform, and the public just doesn't care for Congress. With each passing week, the House and Senate more and more confuse and scare the public. Lawmakers do this damage by unscrolling more -- and more complicated -- versions of new national healthcare plans.
Again, 50 percent of residents of North Carolina approve of the president's job performance, while 37 percent disapprove, with the rest undecided. These same poll respondents said they oppose "the healthcare proposals" -- as they understand them -- that are being advocated by Obama and the Congressional Democratic leadership, by 51 percent to 45 percent.
More important, independent voters, who are the swing vote needed to win in states where Republicans and Democrats trade power from time to time, oppose the proposals overwhelmingly.
Sen. Hagan is among a group of moderate Democrats in the U.S. Senate whose support will be critical if any form of healthcare legislation is to pass, this year or in the foreseeable future. Having reviewed these polling numbers, and having conducted non-partisan polls of the 2008 presidential race in North Carolina for a major national media firm, Politico -- polls that correctly showed that Obama would win here -- I can't imagine that Sen. Hagan can be at all comfortable with this "X-ray" of public sentiment on healthcare.
While we have not finished polling other critical swing states, including many represented by Democratic senators -- there's good reason to believe that North Carolina residents don't read the healthcare issue much differently than do people in other critical swing states.
Perception is reality to the public. If you feed them a polling question designed to make them "like" something, most respondents will say they do indeed like it. But if you ask them straight up what, based on what they know, they think about a particular piece of legislation, you'll get a more realistic snapshot.
Sen. Hagan has five more years before re-election. That's five years to dig herself out of a hole not of her making, and regain her popularity. But it doesn't look like she'll be able to get back her political sea legs by hanging out with a congressional Democratic leadership that traffics in toxic pieces of legislation.
If it's any consolation, Senator, you're not alone.