What Do “We, The People” Really Believe About the Contraceptive Debate?

Judging by a quick scan of this morning’s political talks shows, the controversy regarding religious-based exemptions from requirements to pay for contraceptives remains a hot topic.  Much of the talk by the various pundits centered on whether the Republican candidates’ stance against forcing religious-based organizations like hospitals to pay for contraception will cost them the votes of women and independents.   Critics of the Republican candidates’ stance, citing multiple polls, argue that Rick Santorum and others running for the Republican nomination who oppose the Obama administration policy are out of touch with mainstream public opinion which overwhelmingly favors requiring private insurance plans to cover birth control.  That view is captured in Margie Omero’s scathing rebuke in this HuffingtonPost column of the Republican position.  Citing this recent New York Times poll, Omero points out that the only group that opposes the Obama regulations is Republican men.  Among Republican women, and among all independents and Democrats, however, substantial pluralities support the requirement.

Her conclusion? “If Republicans think it is politically advantageous to mock women, shut them out of the political process, and deny access to care that 99 percent of them use, then they are in even worse shape headed into November than we thought.”

Omero and others who criticize Republican candidates’ position on this issue certainly can cite polling data that seems to support their claims.  Here, for example, is the Times survey question and responses on which Omero based her HuffingtonPost column and accompanying graph (she was also able to get the crosstabs for this question):

75. And what about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university – do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that their health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees?

Support Oppose DK/NA
61% 31% 8%

By almost 2-1, then, those with an opinion favor requiring religious-based organizations to cover the full cost of birth control.   With polling data like this, the Republicans candidates seem to be on the losing side of this issue.

But are they?  Consider the following results from this Pew poll out in the field at about the same time as the Times survey:

Q.67 Should religiously-affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives be given an exemption from this rule, or should they be required to cover contraceptives like other employers?

Total Respondents Including Those Who Have Heard Nothing About This Issue Only Those Who Have Heard “A Lot” or “A Little” About the Issue  
30% 48% Should Be Given An Exemption
27% 44% Should Be Required to Cover
2% 3% Other
3% 5% Don’t Know/Refused to Answer
38%   Heard Nothing/Don’t Know/Refuse

To begin, a plurality of those surveyed haven’t even heard of the issues.  Of those who have, according to Pew, slim pluralities support granting the religious exemption.  Probing further, Pew finds support for religious exemptions much higher among Republicans, with independents about evenly split on the issue.  Only Democrats strongly oppose religious exemptions.

Not surprisingly, views are more strongly polarized among the more partisan members of each party who have heard more about this issue; moderates and independents are much less likely than strong partisans to be familiar with the debate. Interestingly, younger respondents are also much less likely to have heard about the controversy.   As with the Times‘ poll, Pew does find a gender-based difference in the responses.

Based on the Pew survey, then – and in contrast to Omero’s assertion – it makes perfect political sense for Republican candidates trying to appeal to Republican voters during the nominating process to take a strong stand against the Obama policy.  And, if the Pew results are to be believed,this stance may even prove less costly during the general election than Omero and other critics suggest, particularly since – as the NY Times poll indicates – most voters are more concerned with economic than social issues.  By the time November rolls around it’s not likely that this issue will even matter to most voters.  In the short run, however, it is a likely winner for Republican candidates to oppose the contraception mandate.

Of course, this still doesn’t explain the seeming discrepancy between the Times and the Pew survey results.  Why do they present such different snapshots of public opinion on this issue?  The answer, I think, lies in the way the two polling outfits couch their questions.  To begin, the Times prefaces its question regarding whether one supports religious exemptions with this survey question:

74. Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?

Support Oppose Don’t Know/No Answer
66% 26% 8%

Note in this  first question on the issue, there’s no mention of religious-based exemptions.  This serves the purpose of priming a respondent when they decide how to answer the next question that introduces the religious exemption; having already stated an opinion regarding where they stand on the basic issue, I suspect it makes many respondents less likely to want to appear to reverse themselves when almost the identical question is asked next.  The Pew survey, in contrast, does not prime respondents in this manner.

Note also that the surveys use slightly different question wording.  The Times gives specific examples of religious-based organizations: hospitals and universities.  Pew refers only to religious institutions, without providing examples.  Most people don’t think of hospitals and universities as primarily religious institutions which may make survey respondents more likely to support requirements that these institutions pay for birth control. Note as well that Pew focuses on exemptions for religious organizations, while the Times’ question centers on compliance with federal regulations – a slightly different emphasis.

My point here is not to indicate a preference for one survey question wording as opposed to the other.  Nor is it to tell you what the public really thinks.  It is instead to remind you that what pundits often cite as evidence of what “the public” is thinking is frequently determined by surveys whose responses are very sensitive to issues of question wording.   This is particularly true of surveys addressing deeply divisive issues and which use words that often have deep-rooted symbolic and often emotionally-charged meanings. Given this, one should be skeptical of any argument that draws on only one poll to divine what “the public” believes when it comes to highly divisive issues.  Instead, one should consult multiple polls that may use slightly different question wording to fully understand the often shifting, inconclusive and not always well-informed views of “We, the People”.


  1. Is this really an issue that is being led by the presidential candidates? Santorum has a position, but I get the sense that he is responding to what the Congressional Republicans are saying. He doesn’t seem to be making it a major theme of his campaign.

  2. Gerald,

    I’m not sure how big a role it is playing on the stump with Rick, but all three of the non-Paul candidates have, in various guises, talked about Obama’s “war on religion” at various time. I think this issue, and the Republican take on it, fits within that broader theme.

  3. Matthew,
    I am not sure single question polls really tell what is happening here.
    I have long felt that Santorum couldn’t win and David Paul Kuhn seems to hold that view.

    Jeffrey Bell argues in his latest book that the social conservative views may be far more popular than commonly assumed. I have ordered Bell’s latest book and look forward to reading it.
    I think that Bell is onto something and with recent actions by the left such as the constant push for same-sex marriage, Holder’s refusal to defend DOMA and other liberal agenda pushes when economic problems are continuing could lead to a shift in voter attitudes.
    I discuss this in some detail at http://dalesideas.com/2012/02/19/inevitable/

  4. It’s a good thing that polls give us some picture about this even though it didn’t really tell us what is really happening. I have not heard about Bell’s book but I’m looking forward to reading it. Santorum has a small chances to win even though he has a position.

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