Everyone, it seems, is trying to take the pulse of the electorate—Americans who, as the saying goes, vote with their feet and may well decide the fate of this effort to change the American way of health care. The pollsters, the wordsmiths, the PR firms, and the stealth groups have been out in full force, trying to influence the hearts and minds of people turning out at town hall meetings. All this leaves reporters in a pickle, though: How do they know what people really think? So we at Campaign Desk decided to use that age-old reporting tool—the man-on-the-street interview—and set out to look at what men and women we met have to say about health reform. The series is archived here.

We have come to believe that the entire debate, its complexity and its nuances, has been taking place 30,000 feet above the heads of people in whose name the reform battle is being waged. Our interviews confirmed that observation. Of course, our results are not scientific, but we think they offer some pretty good clues to the way ordinary Americans are thinking. Too many people we met are not engaged, have heard lots of wrong information, and have no idea what reform means to them.

Wal-Mart, the shopping mecca for middle America, was high on our list of places to gauge the thinking of ordinary folks. People with their grocery carts brimming had certainly heard of the health reform debate. Two things stood out from my Wal-Mart interviews. The “death panels” provoked a strong reaction, leading me to believe it may be the issue that has penetrated the psyche the deepest so far in this debate. People were firm in their principles. But sometimes they seemed to mix them in odd sorts of ways.

I hardly had the words “health care” out of my mouth when eighty-one-year old Russell Fullem, a long-time resident of Honesdale in northeastern Pennsylvania, boomed: “I believe we should have the same insurance as Sen. Kennedy had, and I will broadcast that everywhere.” Fullem seemed to be saying he was in favor of health care equity, amplifying his point this way: “I want the same insurance to go to the biggest and best hospital in the world to take care of my cancer [if he gets it].”

But he didn’t want socialism—definitely not. Fullem told me that Vladimir Putin had told President Obama that his country had had enough socialism, so why should the U.S be getting it now? He believed that Obama himself had the best health care in the world, but “he’s trying to shove something down us that’s unrecognizable. It’s socialism,” he said.

What exactly is Obama’s plan? I asked. His answer: it was going to cost too much. I pressed for a few specifics, and Fullem, who considers himself a political independent leaning toward a constitutionalist, brought up the death panels. “If people are going to die, he [Obama] is going to put them to sleep. It’s like Soylent Green. That’s his health plan.” He asked if I had seen the movie. I nodded, and my mind raced back decades. He continued: “Why should we have to change for some dream plan that’s not going to work?”

Next, we discussed Medicare, which covers his medical expenses. I explained that it was social insurance, run by the government. “I have no dislikes about Medicare,” he said. “It’s a proven, government plan that works. If they want to build on it, that’s fine, but don’t change the whole goddamn thing.”

Chris and Danielle Oettinger were shopping with their two-month old daughter Laela—baby seat attached to their cart full of Huggies and food. They are a young family—he’s twenty-two and she’s twenty. Health insurance is a big problem. Danielle and the baby have Medicaid, but Chris is uninsured. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that young people don’t get sick and need insurance, Chris has needed a doctor a few times recently. He had stomach pains a few months ago and went to the hospital—a visit that cost the family $800, which they’re paying on an installment plan. Twice he had bronchitis, but saw the doctor only once—that bill came to $70.

Chris is a roofer and doesn’t get coverage from his employer. It’s a dangerous job, but he’s in no financial position to buy health insurance. Danielle supplements their income with part-time work at Turkey Hill, a convenience store.

What did they know about health reform? Danielle told me: “I know it’s government health care like everyone would get.”

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.