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MPR/Humphrey poll: Beyond the horse race

Let’s talk about the recently released MPR/Humphrey poll — but this time let’s look at the peripheral issues involved, instead of the “who’s ahead” numbers.

Let’s talk about the recently released MPR/Humphrey poll — but this time let’s look at the peripheral issues involved, instead of the “who’s ahead” numbers.

The actual results on the head-to-head matchups really have very little meaning; most polls this early in the election season will be long forgotten by late summer. But there are some things to note about the other questions asked.

Distrust of government
For some reason, media seem to analyze a wide mistrust of government as some kind of marker indicating favorables for Republicans or the Tea Party. The most vocal objections come from the right, but I assure you, there aren’t many on the left who hold any kind of opposite view.

There are parts of our government that do us harm regardless of who holds the reins of power. The CIA often operates unilaterally. The Defense Department maintains its stranglehold on enormous amounts of revenue, all in the interest of mysterious forces of national security. War is perpetual once it starts, and there are plenty of government entities that prefer it that way.

Nobody likes the government as a total entity. The difference between conservatives and liberals is that liberals believe the government can, and must, work for the betterment of community, while conservatives believe there is nothing in government that can help anything. Ask the question, “Do you trust government?” and you will always, always find a heavy majority in the negative.

Health reform
The question read: “Do you approve or disapprove of the federal health care reform bill that was recently signed into law?” The results: 48 percent disapproved; 37 percent approved; 15 percent had no opinion.

The odd thing about questions like this is that there really is no indication that anyone knows much, if anything, about the bill yet. Ask anyone if they want an end to insurance exclusions based on pre-existing conditions, or want to keep children on their parents’ insurance to age 26, or if they want to end lifetime/annual limits on coverage, or close the Medicare Part D doughnut hole. I think it’s safe to say that the answers would be heavily in the affirmative.

Health-care-reform polling is really a question that only reflects what is known about the bill from secondhand information. Ask specifics about the bill itself and you will get different responses.

Wall Street anger
Anger against the Wall Street excesses is certainly palpable. But whom to direct it against is the problem. At the moment, the general public is lashing out at anything that moves. Tie anyone or anything to Wall Street banking and the anger seethes.

Yet do you see anybody upset with their own bank? Is there some kind of backlash at Wells Fargo? Or TCF? Or US Bank? Not really. The bank anger is another monolithic thing that the general public understands as some vague entity but with little understanding of what really lies below the surface. We glaze over at talk of credit default swaps and ARM mortgages.

The poll indicated that the Bush administration is blamed for the problem by 20 percent and Wall Street by 26 percent. The Obama administration gets blamed by only 7 percent, yet Obama is the one we have to voice our displeasure at. It is a matter of who is holding the ball now.

Social Security still very popular
It is another curious thing that Social Security remains immensely popular. (76 percent say it is worth the costs). With all the anger at government, there are not too many programs that are so clearly a full government entity. Medicare and Social Security are completely dependent on the American taxpayer, while with the federal health plan, government is merely an adjunct.

For all the talk about socialized medicine, only Medicare actually fits the description. It is also curious that the emphasis is on the federal fix of our health-care system rather than the system being fixed. A system that continues to work less efficiently while costing much, much more. Where are the surveys that ask the questions about insurance issues? We seem to have forgotten why this debate began in the first place.

Stimulus gets high marks
Despite Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s constant drone about the “misguided” stimulus program, 40 percent  of survey responders said that the stimulus made the economy better, while only 18 percent said it made it worse. What prompts this is a little unclear.

Obviously, there are a number of infrastructure programs that are visible because of stimulus, but I am skeptical that taxpayers have made the correlation to the number of cuts and credits that appeared on their tax forms this year because of the passage of stimulus last year. Maybe the gradual uptick in economic markers is helping the perception.

Then there is the Tea Party
There is nothing so enigmatic as the current Tea Party movement. Its visibility is high but, as this poll seems to show, the general public is having a hard time figuring out its purpose. The numbers say: 20 percent support, 26 percent oppose, and 54 percent have no opinion.

Considering that the Tea Partiers themselves are all in that 20 percent support figure, they must not be reaching out to much more of the general public. Frankly, I think the movement’s anger is popular among a populace that actually WANTS to be angry, but what the Tea Party is angry about is sometimes hard to fully pinpoint. Too many other extremists get mixed into the message and that is probably why only 29 percent feel they reflect the views of most Americans, while 50 percent say they do not.

The new Arizona law gets a plurality of support. I would challenge the idea that Minnesotans really understand the law. I think there is an underlying desire for something to be done, in total, with the immigration problem. To many, it comes down to this: At least Arizona did something. The hard numbers: 48 percent favor the Arizona law; 31 percent oppose it; and 21 percent have no opinion. I’d like to see how that number fares over time.

A more telling and thoughtful question in the survey was this:

“If you had to choose, what should be the main focus of the US Government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration? Halting the flow of illegal immigrants? or Developing a plan to deal with the ones who are currently in the US?”

That is a much longer and detailed question than you normally get in these surveys. It gives the person surveyed time to think and reflect. And the results show that this issue is not as black and white as simple legality:

  • 44 percent favored a main focus on halting the flow
  • 45 percent favored focusing on dealing with current illegal immigrants already here
  • 11 percent had no opinion

A small plurality want to deal with this issue comprehensively. I think Minnesotans are generally a little uncomfortable with the harsh rhetoric that surrounds this issue. Give them a thoughtful question and they will give you a thoughtful answer.

The electorate’s real focus
The more general part of the survey gives us a behind-the-curtain peek at what is going on in the mind of the electorate right now — an electorate that is not paying much attention to the political contests but IS thinking about dealing with the day-to-day.

November’s outcomes will have more to do with those thoughts than with any of the horse-race numbers being focused on now.

David Mindeman, of Apple Valley, is the main blogger for mnpACT!, a nonprofit dedicated to progressive issues and ideas.