Medicare Reform: Not So Toxic After All?


As GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has caught up to President Obama in the national election polls, he's also narrowed the gap between himself and the president on health care issues. Obama still leads Romney on all health care questions asked in a new survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation: By at least five points, respondents still say they trust the president to do a better job on women's health issues, on determining the future of ObamaCare, on lowering the cost of health care, and on managing the future of Medicaid and Medicare.

But as Kaiser Health News points out, Obama's advantage on the Medicare question has shrunk dramatically in recent weeks. In September, Obama led Romney by 16 points. Now he leads his GOP rival by just five points, which is not a statistically significant difference in the poll.

This isn't exactly great news for Romney, who is still losing in all the polled categories. But it's not great news for Obama either. And it suggests that warnings about the impossibility of winning on an entitlement reform platform might be overstated. Maybe proposing to overhaul Medicare isn't as toxic to a presidential campaign as many once believed? 

KHN notes that polls show that voters still oppose Romney's (maddeningly vague) plan to transform Medicare into a voucher-style premium support system. And yet amongst seniors in the swing state of Florida, that hasn't been enough to turn support against the GOP candidate. As The Wall Street Journal reports, "polls now show Mr. Romney leading among the state's elderly voters by 6% to 12%—a sign he may be weathering reasonably well the charges by Democrats that he and running mate Paul Ryan would undermine Medicare. Among all voters in Florida, Mr. Romney leads Mr. Obama by an average of less than 2%."

There are a number of possible lessons to draw from this. One is that the GOP's frustrating attacks on Obama for reducing Medicare spending as part of ObamaCare might have worked. Another is that Medicare may be declining in salience as an issue. Another is that when voters decide they might like someone for president, there are carryover effects : As potential voters warm to the idea of Romney as president, they're also warming to the general idea of him making decisions about Medicare, even if they don't like the particular plan he's proposed.

But here's what I'd say the two most important takeaways are. First, proposing Medicare reform is not necessarily a campaign killer, even if the specific plan doesn't poll particularly well. It's even possible to win seniors in swing states by a pretty wide margin with such a plan. Second, public opinion can and does change, sometimes rapidly, about big issues like Medicare where many assume that opinions are intractable. Voters may not be ready to give the thumbs up to a premium-support style Medicare reform plan. But they just might be ready to vote for a president who has proposed one.