Changing Minds on the Individual Mandate

The Kaiser Family Foundation released its latest poll about health-care reform, and they're trying to dig deeper into opposition to the individual mandate, which remains just about the only specific feature of the Affordable Care Act a majority of Americans dislike. They tested a couple of counterarguments, to see whether explaining a bit about the mandate would change opponents' minds. The short answer is yes:


It would seem that substantial numbers of people who oppose the individual mandate believe that because of it, they're going to get dropped from their current employer-provided insurance and have to go shop for some other insurance. Republicans are probably not too upset that lots of people believe this, but in their defense, it isn't something they've actually tried to fool anybody about.

This does suggest that when the mandate comes up, Democrats might want to say, really loudly and a couple of times, "If you have insurance now, the mandate doesn't affect you!" But I doubt that would really work. The reason is that opposition to the mandate is, most importantly, partisan.

As John Zaller explained and elaborated two decades ago in his book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, people take cues from what they hear elites telling them. The way this dynamic plays out tells you a great deal about how debates over policy proceed. Once Republicans figured out that the mandate was the most potentially fruitful means to mount a legal challenge to the ACA, they began to argue that the mandate was The Most Awful Thing About Health Care Reform. Rank-and-file Republicans, after seeing their representatives make this argument over and over, inevitably came to agree.

Even if, in the context of a survey, many people (including some Republicans) will say they're persuaded by a counterargument, in the real world, that counterargument will be delivered by people with particular partisan identities. So if a Republican is sitting at home and sees Nancy Pelosi making what in the KFF survey was a very effective argument, then sees John Boehner come on and say Pelosi is full of it, he'll believe Boehner.