Health care returned to its rightful place – relative to public opinion – in media coverage over the last few weeks, displacing the war in Iraq and the economy as the number three election issue, according to LexisNexis Analytics.
But during the same time period, people who responded to Kaiser Family Foundation’s October tracking poll, published Tuesday, showed less urgency in their calls for reform than they have in previous months. While it remained among the top three priorities for voters considering their November pick, concern about the economy, and its crisis, pushed down interest in health care reform and Iraq.
To the extent that the presidential campaigns are able to link health care costs to the economic lives of middle class voters, the issue appears useful on the campaign trail, but writers in these last couple of weeks have explored whether significant reform is economically feasible given the declining markets and growing national debt. In particular, doubts about the numbers put forward by both campaigns have been fodder for news articles in the week leading up to the final, Oct. 15 presidential debate. Many reporters’ sources seem skeptical about reform and some stories have questioned the honesty with which the candidates press their overhauls desipte fiscal turmoil.
There’s always been a stream of articles reminding readers that many of their neighbors are uninsured, that it’s unfortunate, and can be costly. But this week, more dramatic headlines like "S.W. Va. Voters Despair Over Health Care," in the Roanoke Times stood out from the pack.
"’It’s such a huge problem and when you think about finding some plan or some solution for the millions of uninsured people or underinsured … I just don’t know, that’s a lot," one Virginian told the Roanoke Times, which had interviewed about 20 locals.
The reporter concluded: "It’s that wariness over the political sincerity of health care reform that caused many to say that the topic would not decide their vote… Other broader topics like the economy, war, a "need for change" and a need for an "experienced leader" were much more likely to be the reasons for supporting a particular candidate."
Larger papers, like the San Francisco Chronicle, offered worries more cosmic than an individual vote. The Chronicle reported, "There is also a strong case to be made that taming health care costs is the only way to control Medicare, whose soaring costs threaten to swamp the federal government. But Obama’s chief goal in health care is to expand access, not cut costs."
The data show that health care has made a comeback in the last few weeks, and especially in the week of Oct. 7 to Oct. 13, at least as far as headlines are concerned. But candidates may turn down the volume as voters in Roanoke, on the Blue Ridge backbone of hotly contested Viriginia, worry about political sincerity, and the New York Times finds news in the fact that the number touted by both campaigns make uncomfortable the very economists who crunched them.
"Economics, it is said, is the dismal science. Anyone paying close attention to the campaign debate over the economics of health care might wonder about the science part," Kevin Sack wrote in Wednesday’s Times.
Sack reported that McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin "issued a news release trumpeting the HSI Network analysis of the McCain plan as ‘an independent assessment.’ He did not mention that the campaign had paid for it (an Aug. 27 payment for $50,000 shows up in Mr. McCain’s disclosure filings) or that Mr. Parente [the numbers guy for the McCain campaign’s health team] is one of the firm’s owners."
Regardless, coverage of health care rose in the issue list during a week when all issues combined received less coverage, obscured by the horse race.