The White House veto of a Congressional plan to expand the SCHIP children's health care program seemed to run against public opinion, which squarely supports the measure. But USA Today conducted a misleading poll that assisted the Bush administration's efforts to portray the veto as an effort to help poor children.
On October 16, the paper ran a story headlined "Poll: Mixed Feelings on Kids' Healthcare Program," which declared that "slim majorities" support White House arguments that are "at the core of the president's opposition to the expansion." Most importantly, majorities apparently "agree with Bush that most benefits should go to children in families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level--about $41,000 for a family of four."
After Democrats failed to override Bush's veto, the paper weighed in again on October 19, reporting that "Democrats believe public opinion is on their side, while Republicans are clinging to policy positions favored by Americans." The paper explained that while the public supports the expansion of SCHIP and places more trust in Democrats to handle the issue, "slim majorities in that poll want the program to focus more on low-income, uninsured children, as Republicans have demanded."
How could public opinion seem so confused? An ABC/Washington Post poll (9/27-30/07), for example, found 72 percent support for the expansion of SCHIP. USA Today's misleading poll question provides the answer:
The clear implication from this is that Bush wants to help poor kids, while Democrats are more interested in helping the middle class—-a line USA Today backed when it reported that Bush wanted the "program to focus more on low-income, uninsured children." But the SCHIP program already overwhelmingly serves those low-income families, and the expanded version would do the same. As the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities noted (10/5/07), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that 84 percent of the children that would be newly covered under the Congressional plan would qualify under the current SCHIP income limits. In other words, the vast majority of the new spending would do exactly what USA Today and the White House are suggesting the congressional proposal does not focus on. The Center also reported that the CBO "found that nearly two-thirds of those who would gain coverage under the bill would otherwise be uninsured."
As CBPP executive director Robert Greenstein pointed out (10/17/07), this framing was exactly how the White House sought to defend its position:
The Bush administration has recently argued that the president favors providing health insurance to "poor children first" and vetoed bipartisan children’s health legislation because it violates this principle.... In fact, the truth is almost precisely the opposite of what the Administration claims.
Greenstein also noted that a GOP pollster discovered that opinion surveys shifted in the White House's favor when questions were worded to suggest that the White House was simply trying to focus more resources on helping poor children (Wall Street Journal, 10/12/07). USA Today, it would seem, is doing its part to assist the White House in this PR effort.
Ask USA Today why its SCHIP polling seemed designed to boost White House efforts to portray its veto of the health care program in a positive light.
Brent Jones, Reader Editor