SOMETHING TO STIFFEN SOFT SPINES…. Politicians tend to care about polls. Other considerations may apply pressure to an office holder, but nothing is quite as effective as cold, hard data pointing to public attitudes. When push comes to shove, popular ideas are much easier for a policy maker to support than unpopular ones.

In the context of the debate surrounding a public option in health care reform, lawmakers on the Hill may not care that President Obama wants such a provision and has a mandate to get one, but the recent poll numbers are so one-sided, the results should be hard for Congress to ignore.

An NBC/WSJ poll released the other day found that 76% of Americans believe it’s either “extremely important” or “quite important” to “give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance.”

The wording of that question was a little awkward, though. The results from the latest NYT poll are even more encouraging.

Americans overwhelmingly support substantial changes to the health care system and are strongly behind one of the most contentious proposals Congress is considering, a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll found that most Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes so everyone could have health insurance and that they said the government could do a better job of holding down health-care costs than the private sector.

Respondents were asked, “Would you favor or oppose the government’s offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans?” It wasn’t even close — 72% supported the public option. Among Republicans, the ones who are supposed to find the very idea of a public plan so outrageous, 50% favor the same policy idea.

Now, for conservative Republican lawmakers, it’s likely that none of this matters. A public option can save money, can enjoy broad public support, and can make all kinds of sense, but they have a philosophical objection that trumps everything else. Fine.

But conservative Republicans represent a fairly small minority in Congress right now. For those Democrats who are reluctant to support a public plan, the concerns may be strategic — they’re worried that they’ll be punished by voters for supporting a controversial idea. But that’s precisely why a poll like this matters. It’s not like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh can go to the next caucus meeting and say, “If we support an idea with 72% national approval, voters will kill us.”

The president wants a public option. A majority of the House wants a public option. It’s likely a majority of the Senate wants a public option. A clear majority of Americans want a public option. Oh, and not incidentally, a public option makes a lot of sense as a matter of public policy.

I don’t know what more it would take to stiffen the spines of wavering Democratic senators who just can’t seem to bring themselves to do what needs to be done.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.