Gagnon Gets it Wrong
I often enjoy blogger and columnist Matt Gagnon's writing. When he's deep in campaign gossip, his work takes on a breathless, insidery tone and he's able to spin whole fabrics out of even the thinnest thread of a rumor. He's also put some good pressure on specific candidates.
In fact, I'm pretty sure I was the first person to ever link to his blog.
Gagnon, who lives in D.C. and works for the Republican Governors Association, has always been partisan and there's nothing wrong with that. Lately, however, his pursuit of partisan advantage in his writing seems to have led to some glaring factual mistakes.
Gagnon's latest column, titled "Buy Insurance or Else" and published shortly after the Supreme Court declared the Affordable Care Act to be constitutional, is what made me decide to write this post. In it, Gagnon claims that because he switched jobs and had some difficulty finding insurance for two months, "in the eyes of the government of the United States, I was a criminal and deserved to be fined for my negligence."
Even if we ignore the fact that the Affordable Care Act allows for the creation of health care exchanges that should make the process of finding affordable coverage easier and that there's a means test to make sure that affordable plans are actually available before levying any penalty or tax, Gagnon's statement is still just plain wrong. The ACA provides a specific, targeted exemption to people in exactly the position Gagnon describes – switching insurance plans. If you have a coverage gap of three months, there's absolutely no penalty.
This isn't the only misleading column that Gagnon has published recently. One only needs to go back one week to find another doozy. Two weeks ago, in a piece titled "Pernicious Polling," Gagnon attacked the recent WBUR/MassINC poll (and polling in general) for little or no reason and got some important facts wrong.
First of all, to answer his broad contention that "polls for November elections in June are utter nonsense:" Yes, a June poll isn't the best measure of what will happen in November. It is, however, a very good yardstick of where things stand in June – which is exactly what this and other recent polls are attempting to show. A tadpole might not yet be a frog, but that doesn't mean it's not very good at being a tadpole.
Gagnon goes on to attack this specific poll for numbers that are out of line with where he personally thinks the races are at this point in time, declaring that it "is tragically out of step with reality and should be immediately discounted." Specifically, he faults MassINC's results on the equal marriage referendum, the Senate race and the presidential contest.
I'm not sure what Gagnon's basis for judging "reality" is, but he completely ignores the only real points of comparison we have – other polls by Public Policy Polling and the Maine People's Resource Center (for which I work) that have been conducted over the past few months. Rather than being out of step, a comparison shows the WBUR/MassINC numbers to be right in line with these other recent results.
I explored some of these similarities on the marriage referendum in a recent Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel column.
The only real methodological critique that Gagnon levels is that the MassINC poll has a sample size of 506 rather than his preferred sample of 1,000. He either fails to mention or doesn't know that 506 is a perfectly reasonable sample for this kind of poll and that doubling it would only decrease the overall margin of error for the survey by just over a single percentage point.
Some of this could be open to interpretation and argument, but not Gagnon's final mistake. As part of his indictment of the poll, he declares that "22 percent of respondents said they had not heard of the health care reform law. Almost a quarter of Mainers haven't heard of Obamacare? Really?"
The poll didn't actually ask any questions about the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare at all. Instead it asked about Public Law 90, the rate hike law passed by Governor LePage and Republicans in the Maine Legislature last year. The question reads: "As you may know, a health care reform law was passed in Maine in 2011. Based on what you know about this law, would you say you support or oppose this law?"
Some respondents to the survey might have heard "health care reform" and immediately thought of the federal law. That's understandable and may even have affected the results. Someone writing a column on the subject, however, should be more thorough.