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In Poll, Obama Is Given Trust Over Medicare

The Romney-Ryan proposal to reshape Medicare by giving future beneficiaries fixed amounts of money to buy health coverage is deeply unpopular in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to new polls that found that more likely voters in each state trust President Obama to handle Medicare.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

The Medicare debate was catapulted to the forefront of the presidential campaign this month when Mitt Romney announced that his running mate would be Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who is perhaps best known for proposing a budget plan, supported by Mr. Romney, to overhaul Medicare to rein in its costs.

After more than a week of frenzied campaigning on the issue, Medicare (learn more) ranks as the third-most crucial issue to likely voters in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin — behind the economy and health care, according to new Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News polls of the three swing states. The Republican proposal to retool the program a decade from now is widely disliked.

Roughly 6 in 10 likely voters in each state want Medicare to continue providing health insurance to older Americans the way it does today; fewer than a third of those polled said Medicare should be changed in the future to a system in which the government gives the elderly fixed amounts of money to buy health insurance or Medicare insurance, as Mr. Romney has proposed. And Medicare is widely seen as a good value: about three-quarters of the likely voters in each state said the benefits of Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.

“On Medicare, I don’t like the Paul Ryan plan,” said Beverly McLaren, 72, an independent from St. Petersburg, Fla., who said in a follow-up interview that Medicare worked well for her and that she planned to vote to re-elect Mr. Obama. “I can’t see how it will help at all, and we’ll have more out-of-pocket expenses, and I’m not really clear how it will work.”

About 60 percent of independent voters in the three states support keeping Medicare as it is today, as do at least 8 in 10 Democrats. Republicans are closely divided on the issue in Florida and Ohio, but in Wisconsin, Mr. Ryan’s home state, a majority of Republicans support changing it along the lines he has proposed.

The polls — the first in this series of swing-state surveys taken since Mr. Ryan joined the Republican ticket — showed that at least in Mr. Ryan’s home state, he may be helping Mr. Romney. A majority of likely Wisconsin voters said they approved of the way Mr. Ryan has handled his job in Congress, and 31 percent said his selection made them more likely to vote for Mr. Romney, while 22 percent said it made them less likely to do so. The race appears to have tightened a bit in both Florida and Wisconsin in recent weeks.

In Florida and Wisconsin, where Mr. Obama had led Mr. Romney by six percentage points in polls conducted before the selection of Mr. Ryan, the race is essentially tied. Mr. Obama is ahead in Florida by 49 percent to 46 percent and in Wisconsin by 49 percent to 47 percent — differences within the polls’ margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Mr. Obama retains a six-point advantage in Ohio, where he leads Mr. Romney 50 percent to 44 percent, unchanged from last month’s survey. (Click here for this week's NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll.)

The polls were largely conducted before the uproar over remarks on rape and abortion made by a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, Representative Todd Akin, which officials in both parties agree could alter the dynamic of the race, especially among women. Mr. Obama enjoys solid support of a majority of women in each of these three states, the surveys found, but in Wisconsin his healthy lead among women has narrowed since the last poll and now trails the levels of the 2008 election, when he won the state.

The polls’ findings on Medicare underscore the risk Mr. Romney took when he chose Mr. Ryan to be his running mate. Mr. Ryan rose to prominence among conservatives who lauded his willingness to propose unpopular measures to balance the budget and cut the rising costs of Medicare — costs officials in both parties agree are on an unsustainable path. But while the polls found that Mr. Romney enjoyed a wide advantage in all three states on the question of who is better equipped to tackle the budget deficit, it found that he lagged on other questions voters feel strongly about — including who is better equipped to handle health care, Medicare and foreign policy. Some voters give them credit for campaigning on a politically contentious issue.

“It may be political suicide, but at least Romney and Ryan are willing to stand up and say we can’t keep shoveling money into this program and other programs like this,” said Michael Behnke, 59, an independent from Solon, Ohio.

When it comes to the running mates, Mr. Ryan comes out ahead with independents. On balance, they feel more favorable toward Mr. Ryan but have a more negative view of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has drawn criticism in recent days for saying that Mr. Romney’s policies would unchain the financial sector and “put y’all back in chains.” But many voters in Florida and Ohio said they did not yet know enough about Mr. Ryan to form an opinion — and many in all three states said the choice of running mate would have no impact on their votes.

The polls were conducted by telephone (landline and cellphones) from Aug. 15 through Tuesday among 1,241 likely voters in Florida, 1,253 likely voters in Ohio and 1,190 likely voters in Wisconsin. All three are states Mr. Obama won, but where Republicans have since made gains in state and local elections.

Mr. Romney has taken pains to stress that his Medicare plan would not change the benefits for people 55 or over. But voters over 55 have strong feelings about it, including in Florida, the electoral-vote-rich state where Republicans will hold their convention next week.

Jim Ryan, 75, a retired executive from Bradenton, Fla., who is an independent, said it was an important issue because he and his wife were on Medicare.

“We’re enjoying the benefits now, and the Paul Ryan program of making it into a voucher system would change things,” he said. “I know it’s not intended to apply to people in our age group, but I’m concerned about the future. I think it’s a wonderful program, and I’ve got middle-aged children and I don’t want to see the program destroyed. It’s probably one of the best programs sponsored by the federal government that we’ve ever had. It does have to be made fiscally sound, but there are ways to do that without destroying the whole concept or the substance of it.”

Mr. Romney has been attacking Mr. Obama for counting on $716 billion in Medicare savings to help pay for his health care law — savings that Mr. Ryan also counted on in his budget plan but which Mr. Romney has promised to restore. The poll underscored how unpopular deep cuts to Medicare are.

Only about a tenth of the voters in each state said they would support major reductions in Medicare spending to reduce the federal deficit. Nearly half of the voters in each state said they would support minor reductions, and about a third said they would not support any reductions at all.

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