AN AWFULLY BIG ‘FRINGE’…. There have always been at least two key angles to the right-wing attacks against health care reform: 1) the willingness of conservatives to lie; and 2) the willingness of the public to believe the lies. It’s one thing for prominent far-right voices to talk up imaginary “death panels,” for example, but who’s going to believe such garbage? We’re talking about a radical, isolated fringe, right?

Wrong. A Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos, in what I believe is the first national poll on the question, gauged public opinion on this. Respondents were asked whether the reform proposals under consideration would create “death panels” that would dictate medical care based on Americans’ “productivity in society.” Nearly three-fourths of the public (72%) said no, 11% said yes, and 17% weren’t sure. But of greater interest were the partisan numbers.

Democrats and independents rejected the claim in large numbers, but here were the results for self-identified Republicans:

Yes: 26%
No: 43%
Not sure: 31%

There were similar results on related questions. Republicans, unlike Democrats and independents, also believe reform would “require elderly patients to meet with government officials to discuss ‘end of life’ options including euthanasia,” and consider reform to be a government “takeover” of the health care system. Neither claim is true.

On a more comical note, Republicans were also far more likely to believe that Medicare is not a government program than anyone else. While only 7% of Democrats were confused about Medicare, the number of Republicans who believe Medicare isn’t a government program was twice as high (14%).

But specifically on the “death panel” confusion, we’re in the midst of a national debate in which a clear majority of rank-and-file Republicans either believe “death panels” are a serious proposal or aren’t sure.

Greg Sargent, who called his “astonishing,” added, “The key here is that the question was specifically worded to mirror Palin’s assertion that Obama’s death panel will evaluate a person’s right to medical care based on whether they’re productive in society. More than a quarter of Republicans believe this, and nearly a third are not sure.”

It does offer some context for the angry right-wing protestors. Why would they fight so hard against a reform plan that would help their families? Because they’ve been lied to so often, they actually think Democrats literally might start killing people.

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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.