As lawmakers and voters ponder the impact of President Obama’s prime-time appeal Wednesday for his struggling health care reform package, no group will be more pivotal to his plan’s fate than independents who have deserted him in droves in recent months.
Pollsters say that these politically unaffiliated swing voters, who make up nearly one-third of the nation’s electorate and helped put Mr. Obama in the White House, are among the key groups he must persuade if his health care proposals have any chance of passing Congress.
Mr. Obama at times appeared to be making just that pitch in his speech to Congress on Wednesday night, painting his proposal as a moderate alternative to liberal hopes for a government-run health system and conservative hopes for a purely free-market system.
“I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch,” Mr. Obama said.
A recent Gallup Poll released Tuesday found that 44 percent of independents contacted would advise their members of Congress to vote against the health care bill. Twenty-nine percent would urge them to vote for a bill, while 28 percent, or one in four, had no opinion either way.
The poll also found that 64 percent of Americans said “their representative’s position on health care reform will be a major factor in their vote in the next congressional election,” with a startling 82 percent of those opposed to the reform bills saying it will be key to their vote.
There was little polling data available the day after the president’s address to show whether he had swung public opinion, although a CNN snap survey of 427 adults Wednesday night reported that 77 percent of them “had a very positive or somewhat positive reaction to his health care speech.”
CNN said 45 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Democrats, 37 percent as independents and 18 percent as Republicans.
These numbers were in sharp contrast to daily tracking polls taken just before the speech. A Rasmussen poll showed 44 percent of voters favoring Mr. Obama’s health care proposals and 53 percent opposed. An Associated Press poll, released just hours before the speech, said public disapproval of his handling of health care had jumped to 52 percent and 49 percent opposed the health care reform plans now being considered by Congress.
The numbers again suggest that winning back independents could be key to Mr. Obama’s health care hopes.
“Independents tend to be the least informed and most prone to switch positions on health reform and other complicated policies in response to whatever information they pick up inadvertently,” said Thomas Mann, a senior public policy and political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
“Obama ceded the public debate to critics during the summer. Now he needs to dominate that debate on terms favorable to his approach to swing them back on his side,” Mr. Mann said.
Some Democrats, however, said that much of the political angst in the health care debate was the result of the economy and that the chances of passing health care reform will improve when the economy does.
Israel Klein, a Democratic strategist who has advised party leaders in Congress, predicted that “as long as the Obama administration keeps fighting to improve the economy and reform health care, the broad coalition that voted for the president will stick with him.”