Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of November 7-November 13, 2005)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Will the Real Exurban Voters Please Stand Up?

• Don’t Like It, Don’t Understand It, Don’t Plan to Use It: Seniors on the New Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit

Will the Real Exurban Voters Please Stand Up?

Well, maybe they have! In the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Jerry Kilgore, after running a bruising, culture wars-driven campaign against Democrat Timothy Kaine, lost the quintessential exurban county of Loudoun – the fastest-growing county in the entire nation since 2000 – to Kaine by 3,400 votes, 51 percent to 46 percent. In contrast, John Kerry lost this county in 2004 by 13,000 votes, 56 percent to 44 percent. And even Mark Warner, Kaine’s Democratic predecessor, lost Loudoun by 53 percent to 46 percent in his successful 2001 gubernatorial bid.

This is really quite a remarkable result. Recall that in 2002, conservative commentator David Brooks surveyed the landscape after a smashing election victory for the GOP and penned an influential New York Times op-ed, “For Democrats, Time to Meet the Exurban Voter.” In that article, he argued that the rise of America’s exurbs contributed mightily to the GOP’s success in that election and would continue to do so in the future, putting the Democrats on the demographic ropes, so to speak. Bush’s strong showing in those same exurbs in 2004 seemed to validate Mr. Brooks’ thesis. As he put it in his 2002 op-ed: “[Exurban voters] swung this election, and when it comes to how they see the world, what scares and inspires them, the Republicans, so far, just seem to get it.”

Now it appears maybe the GOP doesn’t get it. As I put it in my New York Times op-ed piece this Monday, “The Battle for the Exurbs”:

“[F]ar from "getting" exurban voters on a deeply psychological level, Republicans have misinterpreted their past success in these areas as evidence that these voters endorsed and wanted an anti-government, socially conservative agenda. But that was never a warranted assumption, either then or now.

In reality, exurban voters are tax-sensitive and concerned about government waste, but not ideologically anti-government. They tend to be religious and family-oriented, but socially moderate in comparison to rural residents. They are not anti-business, but they do hold populist attitudes toward corporate abuse and people who game the system. And they worry as much or more about public education as they do about moral values.

That's the real exurban voter. No wonder Jerry Kilgore couldn't connect. He ran a campaign on cultural wedge issues like the death penalty and illegal immigration when exurban and most other Virginia voters were looking for solutions on education, transportation and health care.”

Fresh poll data supporting this interpretation comes from a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Communities for Quality Education poll conducted in Loudoun County on Election Day and the day after. As summarized in the Washington Post:

“Forty percent of those polled ranked ‘transportation and roads’ as either their first or second priority when it came to picking a gubernatorial candidate; 38 percent said education. Asked which candidate would do a better job handling those issues, Kaine held a 23 percentage point advantage over state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) on education and a 16 percentage point edge on transportation. Interestingly, the death penalty and illegal immigration – two of Kilgore's top talking points – were ranked as the most important voting issues by just 3 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of people questioned.”

There is also evidence that exurban voters across the country want a serious change of course from that offered by Bush and the GOP, which has implications, of course, for the next election in 2006. Here are some data from combined Democracy Corps surveys over the September-November period.

1. Fifty-seven percent of exurban voters think the country is off on the wrong track, compared to just 37 percent who think it is on the right track.

2. By 60-37, exurban voters think the economy is going in the wrong direction.

3. By 55-39, these voters think the country should go in a significantly different direction, rather than continue in Bush’s direction.

4. By 54-45, exurban voters think the Iraq war has not been worth the cost.

5. Finally, the Republicans only have a narrow 4 point lead among exurban voters in the generic Congressional contest; that compares to a 23 point margin for Bush in the 2004 election among these voters.

Not a pretty picture for the GOP. Maybe it’s time they really “got” the exurban voter.

Don’t Like It, Don’t Understand It, Don’t Plan to Use It: Seniors on the New Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit

On Sunday, the New York Times has a front-page story on the reception of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, “Confusion Is Rife About Drug Plan as Sign-Up Nears.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Brian D. Caswell, a former president of the Kansas Pharmacists Association, said he spent two to three hours a day explaining the Medicare drug benefit to customers at his store in rural Baxter Springs. He encouraged them to take a look at the new program.

But Mr. Caswell said: ‘The program is so poorly designed and is creating so much confusion that it's having a negative effect on most beneficiaries. It's making people cynical about the whole process – the new program, the government's help.’

Robert W. Nyquist, a pharmacist in Lindsborg, Kan., said customers had told him: ‘This is just beyond me. I can't decipher which drug plan is cheapest.’….

Even after attending the seminar [on the new benefit], Raymond L. Middlesworth, 70, a retired truck driver from Urbana, said he was baffled.

‘I've tried reading the Medicare book about the drug plan,’ Mr. Middlesworth said, ‘but I couldn't make sense of it. This is the biggest mess that Medicare has ever put us through.’”

Survey data documenting this confusion are provided by a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll of seniors. Here are some of the survey’s key findings.

1. Views of seniors on the new benefit remain negative (31 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable).

2. Just 36 percent of seniors say they have enough information about the new benefit to understand how it would impact them personally.

3. A mere 20 percent currently say they plan to enroll in the benefit plan.

4. Among those who do not currently plan to enroll for benefits, the most common “major reason” why they are not planning to enroll is having a pre-existing plan to pay for prescription drugs (60 percent), followed by “I don’t know enough about it” (46 percent) and “I don’t think it would save me money” (45 percent).

5. Only 19 percent believe the new benefit will be “very helpful” to them personally and another 20 percent believe it will “somewhat helpful.”

6. As for the wide choice of prescription drug plans available to most seniors (typically around 40), this is mostly viewed as a liability, with almost three-quarters (73 percent) saying that such a wide range of choices makes it confusing and difficult to pick the best plan.

As Paul Krugman put it in a recent column, “[P]oliticians who don't believe in a positive role for government shouldn't be allowed to design new government programs.” I think there are a lot of seniors out there who would agree with that assessment.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.