Health care ranks second only to the economy as the most important issue for likely voters in the 2012 presidential election, according to a new analysis of public opinion polls published online in the New England Journal of Medicine. It is the highest that health care has ranked as a presidential election issue since 1992.
Asked to pick from a list of issues, one in five (20%) named health care as the most important issue in the presidential election, far behind the economy which was cited by 51% of likely voters.
“The economy dominates most voters’ thinking in terms of their priorities for choosing a candidate,” said Robert Blandon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the analysis. “But in a close election, the two candidates’ stands on health care issues could help swing the balance among some voters.”
The analysis of 37 national opinion polls conducted by 17 survey organizations found Americans still deeply divided over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). An average of current polls shows that 45% of Americans disapprove of Obamacare, while 44% support it.
However, among likely voters who said health care was the most important issue in their voting choice, 41% said they were much less likely to vote for a candidate who supported repealing all or part of Obamacare. Only 14% said they were much more likely to vote for such a candidate.
The analysis also looked at the issue of changing Medicare to a voucher system in which the government provides seniors with a fixed sum of money they could use to purchase health insurance or Medicare coverage. It found that 66% of likely voters opposed such a change, while only 27% support it.
A voucher system has been proposed by Mitt Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, as a way to control Medicare costs.
Among likely voters who ranked health care as the most important issue, 39% said they were much less likely to vote for a candidate who supported vouchers, while only 11% said they were much more likely to vote for such a candidate.
“Those who select health care as their top voting issue are much more likely to support the policy positions of Obama than those of Romney,” Blandon said.
Americans are also divided on the issue of abortion, although only 4% of likely voters ranked it as their top issue. Over half (52%) say that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances or legal in only a few circumstances; 44% believe abortion should be legal under any or most circumstances. A large majority (83%) believe abortion should be legal when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.
On the issue of health care in general, President Obama is given poor marks by most voters. Over half (52%) disapprove of his handling of health care, with 41% approving. Nearly two out of three Americans (65%) also believe health care costs have worsened during the past 5 years.
Those results are in sync with a recent poll by Consumer Reports, which found that paying for health care was the top financial problem for American households.
“Despite the historic nature of the health care legislation that was enacted during President Obama’s first term, the public remains quite mixed in their views about his performance on health care,” said Blendon.