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Watching the birth of a conspiracy theory in real time

There is no scheme to manipulate the Census to help the Affordable Care Act. So why do Republicans keep insisting otherwise?
People register at the Arlington Free Clinic for the healthcare lottery on November 12, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.
People register at the Arlington Free Clinic for the healthcare lottery on November 12, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.
We saw the likely conspiracy theory coming, but as Andrew Rosenthal noted, it's nevertheless interesting to "actually see one being born."

For years now some on the right have speculated that the Obama administration is trying to politicize the national census. Yesterday, Noah Rothman argued on Mediaite that the theory was proven correct by a New York Times article about changes in the way the Census Bureau plans to ask about health insurance coverage. The idea is that the new questions will show a reduction in the number of uninsured people starting in 2014, which may make it seem as though the Affordable Care Act is working better than it really is. The change in questions will also produce a "break in trend" within the census surveys and thus make it impossible to statistically compare 2013 and 2014 with earlier years. Therefore, the White House must have ordered this sinister change to promote President Obama's signature domestic initiative.

Or so the argument went. Conservative media types weren't alone, of course. As Igor Volsky noted, congressional Republican offices soon followed. In an especially odd missive, House Speaker John Boehner's communications director, Rory Cooper, tweeted, "It never stops. Obama Administration now changing the CENSUS survey in order to hide failure of Obamacare."
It's unclear whether or not Cooper and his like-minded cohorts realize what they're saying is silly. Maybe they know how foolish this conspiracy theory is, but hope to keep irrational hatred of the Affordable Care Act going, whether it makes sense or not. Or perhaps they just don't know enough about the substance of this to understand the policy they're publicly condemning.
Either way, to borrow a phrase, it never stops.
But so long as Republicans and conservative media intend to remain invested in this, it's probably worth taking a closer look at reality.
The truth, whether the right wants to admit it or not, is that Census statisticians have been working on changing the wording of health-insurance questions since before Obama even became president. Why? Because they produced less reliable information.
There is no conspiracy. There is no cover-up. The irony of the right's whining is that these changes will make it easier, not harder, to measure the efficacy of the ACA in bringing coverage to the uninsured.

The director of the Census Bureau said he is confident that new changes in the wording of survey questions on health insurance will not diminish its ability to measure the impact of the Affordable Care Act. John H. Thompson, responding to critics, said the survey questions were rephrased specifically to establish a benchmark for how many people were uninsured in 2013, the year before the health insurance mandate took effect, so comparisons can be made in future years.

"I can assure you, I have had no discussions of this with the White House or with anyone else in the administration," Thompson told the **Washington Post. "This has been a scientific process, and that's the way we operate. I don't understand where all these concerns come from suddenly. We pride ourselves on being a statistical agency that produces objective, nonpartisan and high-quality information. That's our mission."
And even if someone is inclined to ignore the evidence and embrace the conspiracy theory, let's also not forget that the administration wouldn't have any real incentive to use the Census Bureau to try to fudge the data because the Census Bureau isn't the only source for measuring the uninsured rate.
There's just nothing here. I'm sure that apology from Boehner's office, which no doubt regrets endorsing the nonsensical conspiracy theory, will be on the way any minute now.