A new poll, conducted by USA Today and Gallup, appears to show that the town hall protests may be accomplishing one goal and winning some converts to the side opposing Democratic healthcare proposals. 34 percent of all respondents say they've become more sympathetic to the protesters' views, while 21 percent said they've become less sympathetic and 36 percent said the protests haven't made any difference in their thinking.
Some conservative bloggers, naturally, are crowing over the results. "Either indies have suddenly developed a taste for Nazi mobs of political terrorists or the Democrats’ message war on ObamaCare opponents is a rather epic fail," Hot Air's Allahpundit wrote, for instance, in a post that was echoed by Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit.
That's probably going a little too far. The poll does seem to show some movement of support, but it isn't exactly a perfect way to measure how the protests have affected voters' opinions, and on its face it seems like stronger evidence than it is. Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver writes:
Polls of this nature are notoriously slippery. If there were some protest in favor of a policy that I supported -- like expanded stem-cell research -- I'd probably tell a pollster that the protest had in fact made me more sympathetic to the cause, even though my mind on the issue was already 100 percent made up and was not going to be swayed. The real question, then, is how many minds are being changed on the issue. And it may not be all that many.
That seems right. Still, there is an issue for Democrats in the numbers Gallup found among self-identified independents. 35 percent said the protests have made them more sympathetic to the protesters views, while only 16 percent said they've gone the other direction.
That may boil down to another point Silver makes: "[T]he real upside to the protests is that they perpetuate misinformation about the Democrats' bills." There are two ways in which this can work -- first of all, Democrats have spent so much time during the town halls defending against the misinformation that they haven't had time to go on offense and argue strongly in favor of the proposals. Second, the coverage has been focused on the misinformation, which can have the effect of strengthening and spreading belief in it.