By: Douglas E. Schoen

A Washington Post piece by Joel Benenson, President Obama’s “lead” pollster, today challenges the argument and the data offered by myself and Pat Caddell in a piece published Sunday in the same newspaper about health care reform and raises the question: Who is right?

Benenson asserted that Caddell and I were “wrong” to suggest that the health care reform bill was unpopular, and, in fact, public opinion polls had shown an upturn in support for the legislation recently.

With the release today of a survey of 1,200 likely voters conducted in the 35 most marginal Congressional districts last week, we have a clear answer to the question that our piece and Benenson’s piece both raise. This poll, conducted between Mar. 8-10, shows that the legislation is particularly unpopular in marginal districts — 29 percent say that they would like the current legislation passed, and 69 percent oppose it.

Moreover, when asked in the survey, conducted for the Independent Women’s Voice, if what they have heard since bipartisan health care summit has made them more or less supportive of the health care bill, 55 percent say what they have heard has made them less supportive, and 29 percent that it makes them more supportive.

Unambiguously, in the swing districts the legislation is not popular. Further, it is probably even more unpopular in these districts than it is nationally.

The Independent Women’s Voice research was equally clear on the political impact of the legislation. Forty-nine percent of voters say that they would be more likely to support their member of Congress if he flipped from supporting the legislation previously to opposing it now, while 40 percent say that they would be less supportive if their representative chose such a course.

For those Congressmen who end up casting a vote twice against the measure, 58 percent say that they will be more supportive of his reelection if he follows this path.

Looking at the issue more generally, 60 percent say that they are more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes this bill and wants to start over, while just 32 percent are more likely to vote against a candidate who takes this position. This suggests clearly that a “yes” vote is problematic.

A detailed look at the research shows that representatives who change their vote from opposing it last November to supporting it now will probably be committing political hara-kiri. The research shows that 61 percent of these voters will be less likely to support a candidate who changes his vote to get the bill passed in the 11th hour.

Thus, this data shows that voting for this health care bill may dramatically weaken Democratic members’ reelection chances and could potentially endanger Democratic control of the House.

An examination of the poll’s demographics shows why this is a problem. These marginal districts are far more conservative than the country as a whole. Overall, 48 percent of the sample is conservative, while only 16 percent is liberal and 30 percent is moderate. Forty percent of the voters interviewed are Republican, 32 percent Democrat and 23 percent are Independent. The vast majority, 90 percent, have health insurance that they are, in large part, satisfied with.

Thus, the new data suggests that a vote for this measure this week is could be toxic.

At the same time, the polling shows the way for a revised set of health care proposals to be put forward, should this fail. More than 60 percent of the voters surveyed support allowing people to buy health insurance on their own with the same tax benefits as people who get insurance at work; allowing small businesses to find health insurance buy-in pools, and allowing interstate purchase of insurance.

None of this is surprising. The data has been clear since at least the summer about how the American people feel about health insurance and their fears about the scope of government and the cost of this initiative. They would like greater focus on cost than any other goal.

But what is striking about this polling is how definitive it is in swing districts, and how perilous the Democrats’ position will be if they ignore the handwriting on the wall.

 Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and author of” The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grass Roots to the White House.”