Thursday December 19, 2013 | 09:41 AM

The best way to find out if Mainers support the expansion of Medicaid, or MaineCare? Ask them.

The trick is how you ask the question.

Last week, the Portland-based polling firm Pan Atlantic SMS -- typically described as a Democratic firm -- released its winter omnibus poll. Included in the survey was a question about expanding Medicaid. The results showed a majority of respondents favored expansion, but the margin was pretty thin compared to other surveys conducted here, 5.3 percent. Republicans lauded the result, while Democrats and progressive groups said the question was biased. 

Mike Tipping, with the Maine Peoples Alliance, a progressive advocacy group that supports expansion, was among the critics the SMS question, saying it was biased and flawed. Tipping, who runs the polling firm, the Maine Peoples Resource Center, then conducted his own survey of the issue in legislative swing districts. Here's what it found:

* 56.8 percent strongly support expansion

* 12.1 percent somewhat support

* 6.5 percent somewhat oppose

* 22.3 percent strongly oppose

* 2.3 percent not sure

And there you go: Overwhelming support for Medicaid expansion. The SMS poll only gave three response options. But even if you toss the leaners on the MRPC poll, that's a significantly different result from SMS.

So what happened? A different question. Significantly different.

Here's the SMS question:

"The most recent legislature passed a bill to expand MaineCare to 70,000 Maine families that do not have health care coverage. The Governor, in turn, vetoed the bill, saying that we couldn’t afford the expense. Whose position aligns more closely to your own."

Here's the MRPC question:

"Under the new federal health care law, nearly 70,000 people in Maine who are uninsured right now could get health care coverage through Medicaid, known in Maine as MaineCare, starting in 2014. The governor and state elected officials can choose to accept federal dollars that have been allocated to cover these people in Maine, or to turn the money down and not cover these people. The federal dollars cover 100% of the costs in the first three years, and 90% of the costs after that." 

Tipping recently tweeted that MRPC uses "nationally-vetted" questions, so presumably it did so here (UPDATE: He did. Apparently the same question was used in eight other states; each showed a wide margin of support for expansion.). I'm not a polling analyst, but I've bolded some words or that could possibly move a respondent in one direction or another. Of course, what's added or omitted could also impact a response. For example, the SMS question makes no mention of the federal reimbursement. The MPRC does and takes it further, saying the funds have already been allocated to Maine (Subtext: "It's our money, elected officials just have to accept it."). The SMS question suggests there's a cost to expansion; MPRC does not.

So what do all of these language nuances mean for the fate of Medicaid expansion for the legislative session? Maybe not much, unless Democrats in the Legislature can convince swing district Republicans to support it (MPRC identified these districts in the poll). But the differences in question wording will probably be reflected during the 2014 gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, particularly if Democratic groups plan to use Republican opposition to expansion as a campaign issue.

Here's the poll: 

MPRC Poll Update

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

Steve can be reached at 791-6345 or smistler@pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @stevemistler

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