Inside the Democratic Party’s infamous big tent, arguments against Medicare for All tend to hit the same few notes. Citing polling, Medicare for All critics argue that the policy, popularized by Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016, will cost the party votes; that the prospect of trading private health insurance for a government-run model would run afoul of the American people’s hatred for socialism. Reality complicates these arguments. Americans may say they dislike socialism as an abstract concept, but have proved remarkably open to politicians who adopted the label, and a majority of Americans say they support Medicare for All.
The party’s centrists, though, believe that not only will Medicare for All fail to draw primary voters, but that it will prove itself to be political poison in a general election. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has proposed a public option as an alternative; he, along with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have all attacked Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren from the right.
But new research suggests that moderates may be overstating the political risks of Medicare for All, at least during the primaries. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats in South Carolina say that they strongly or somewhat support “expanding Medicare so that it becomes the primary insurer for all Americans,” according to a a poll produced by Data for Progress on behalf of Medicare for All NOW, an advocacy group founded by former Cigna executive Wendell Potter. Support for this definition of broadening Medicare to cover everyone was highest among black Democrats and among voters aged 55 to 64: 82 percent of both groups said they supported the plan.
In a memo released to members of the press, the left-leaning Data for Progress says it put two related questions before 767 likely South Carolina primary voters. The first, which frames Medicare as the principal, but not the exclusive, insurer for all Americans, tracks closest to the definition of a public option or with Buttigieg’s “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan. Sixty-five percent of Americans said they supported a public option in a 2019 poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Medicare for All was less popular — 53 percent of Americans said they supported it. Even so, the Data for Progress poll suggests that voters are receptive to the idea. When pollsters described a version of Medicare for All “that would put everyone onto a single, government-run plan” that “would have no premiums, no co-pays, and no deductibles for all healthcare services,” 77 percent of the state’s Democrats again said they would they would support such a policy.
Though the top-line result for both questions is the same, the breakdown for each reveals some differences. Fifty-seven percent said they “strongly” supported Medicare as the nation’s primary insurer; 20 percent said they “somewhat” supported the proposal. By contrast, 49 percent strongly supported the mainstream definition of Medicare for All, and 28 percent somewhat supported it. Black support for the second, Sanders-like version was also somewhat lower, though not by much; 80 percent still strongly or somewhat supported it.
These distinctions don’t alter the overarching message of the poll. Medicare for All isn’t a poison pill, at least not in South Carolina. Biden still enjoys a commanding lead over Sanders, his closest competitor, in the pivotal state, but the democratic socialist may not be completely doomed.