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The Real Conservative Echo Chamber

By Josh Barro
February 22, 2013 10:48 AM EST

The James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Florida, has a new poll out that purports to show that 59 percent of Floridians oppose the Medicaid expansion that Republican Governor Rick Scott just endorsed. It’s a push poll. And it’s a great example of the phenomenon that keeps making conservatives stupider on both politics and policy.

First, let’s discuss why this poll is a push poll. It starts by priming respondents with questions about the national debt and the size of Florida’s existing Medicaid budget.

Then it gives an inaccurate description of the terms of the expansion. Poll respondents were told that Medicaid currently covers people earning up to 100 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s not true: In Florida, the limit for adults is 56 percent of FPL, and you must have dependent children to qualify. Respondents also heard that after three years, the state would be on the hook for “more than 10 percent” of the cost of newly eligible adults. That’s not true, either: The state’s share would be exactly 10 percent.

Finally, instead of asking for a straight yes-or-no answer, the pollster asked if respondents favored Medicaid expansion “even if it results in tax hikes and spending cuts.” This isn’t a poll designed to figure out how Floridians feel about the Medicaid expansion; it’s one designed to get them to say they oppose it, so the organization commissioning the poll can say it’s unpopular.

The James Madison Institute is supposed to be a policy-research organization, which is why it's a 501(c)3 charity that can take tax-deductible contributions. But conservative think tanks are increasingly becoming tax-advantaged vehicles for political activism rather than actual policy-research institutions. That this one is engaging in push polling doesn't surprise me in the least.

This is a double problem for conservatives. One is that it fills their heads with bad information: The whole point of this poll is to give Republican legislators the idea that they will win politically by opposing Medicaid expansion. But since the poll was engineered to produce its result, it doesn’t actually provide evidence for that position. A poll by expansion supporters shows strong support, revealing how heavily the answer you get is driven by how you pose the question. But as we saw in 2012, conservatives have a way of reading only the polls whose results they like and suffering the negative political consequences.

The bigger problem with this misuse of think tanks is that it deprives conservatives of good information. Conservative think tanks haven't developed plausible alternative ideas on health policy because that isn't what donors want them to do. For the last four years, the project has been finding anything to tear down Obamacare, not to find a replacement. David Frum was fired from the American Enterprise Institute for saying Republicans needed to accept that Obamacare was the law and find ways to make it work better. It has taken three years since then for conservatives to start realizing he was right.

When people talk about the conservative echo chamber, they often focus on lowbrow outlets like Fox News, talk radio and Breitbart.com. Certainly these are often embarrassing and counterproductive for conservatism, most recently with the “Friends of Hamas” fiasco. But every movement contains stupid people reading stupid things. The special reason conservatives can’t think straight is that their supposedly smart institutions are inside the echo chamber, too.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

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