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Since the beginning of the year, U.S. President Barack Obama's approval ratings are down about 15 points. Meanwhile, consumer confidence is up by 12 points. So much for "it's the economy."

At least part of what's going wrong for the President is how quickly his health reform idea is shedding support, six points in the last few weeks.

His struggle to gain traction for this initiative brought to mind some interesting work I did years ago with my friend and former colleague Bill Fox, in the run up to the Canadian referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. Since Canada had scant experience with referenda, we undertook to look at experiences around the world, and describe what we saw that was pertinent.

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The results were sobering for those who wanted to change the Constitution.

Most ballot initiatives or referenda are losers. By some estimates, 60 per cent go down to defeat, even though they had a fair bit of support to begin with, or wouldn't make it onto a ballot. One rule of thumb is that to win, advocates of an idea must start with more than two-thirds support, because "yes" sides generally drain rather than gain support. The Charlottetown package started with about 62 per cent support, and didn't make it across the finish line.

The reasons why initiatives tend to lose are simple, and intuitive.

First, although sometimes people really want change, more often they worry about change and the disruption it might bring. Making the case for change is either dead simple, because people are mad as hell with the status quo, or really rather hard.

Second, those who advocate a new idea need to be prepared to defend it from dozens of different criticisms. Those who oppose it don't usually need a better alternative. They only need to kick one leg out from under it. Few ideas are so perfectly formed that they can stand up to this test.

Third, there is the role of the news media. To provide what is judged to be balanced coverage, the media tend to allocate coverage of referenda either on a 50/50 basis, or with a skew to the more controversial aspects of the debate. Either is bad news for a "yes" side. If an idea starts with 65 per cent support, but coverage implies a 50/50 split, support levels will eventually emulate media coverage.

Naturally, there are other moving parts that affect the outcomes, including the proposition's details and the advocates' credibility. But in the end, the advocates of change are normally working against gravity. One reason why if you are on the "yes" side, you want a short campaign.

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For the President, these lessons are germane. His health agenda is a massive change and the parallels to trying to win a referendum are numerous. While some are very unhappy with the health-care status quo, not enough Americans are mad as hell. Obama's No. 1 job is to create more public stress about what he feels will happen if nothing changes.

Second he must defend his package against a myriad of different criticisms. But he hasn't really put enough detail forward yet. So the speculation that his proposal will cost too much, or work poorly, or isn't well enough thought out, or is being rushed through too quickly, all stand some chance of gaining public sympathy. At a minimum, he needs to fill in more of the page, and decide which fights he wants to tackle, rather than absorbing all blows.

As gifted a communicator as the President is, and as clever as his team is at making sure that he is in the news cycle continuously, it feels to me the media balance has already shifted to accentuate the "no" side, as well as the controversy. I'm sure that's one reason why the push for quick closure is so prominent a part of the Democrats' strategy.

While this story is by no means done yet, past history doesn't augur well for this initiative. For the President to prevail will take heroic effort, great strategic discipline and considerable good fortune.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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