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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Voters Prioritize Issues — In Their Own Words

The horse race polls are now becoming more relevant as tools for prediction as we close in on the primaries. But they are less useful to candidates, campaigns and reporters as a tool for knowing what exactly is bugging voters. For that we turn to issue polls, and the latest Gallup Poll, conducted 11/30-12/2, is particularly instructive in that regard.
Asked to identify the issues “most important in determining their vote for president in next year’s election,” the Gallup survey respondents gave answers, in their own words — not Gallup’s suggested terminology. As Joseph Carroll reports in his Gallup summary:

Thirty-six percent of Americans say Iraq, with the economy (16%), healthcare (15%), and illegal immigration (10%) mentioned next most often. Between 3% and 6% of Americans mention homeland security or military defense, taxes, the honesty and integrity of the candidate, abortion, domestic issues, Social Security reform, and international affairs….Iraq has diminished somewhat as the top issue over the course of the year, while there has been a slight increase in the reported importance of immigration.

The poll is based on a nationwide sample (m.o.e.= 3), so it is not the last word on issues for candidates with respect to individual state primaries. The early states holding primaries are not the best bellwethers in the way their demographics reflect national priorities (for the best bellwether states, see interactive graphic chart here). But I would not be shocked if voters in IA, NH, SC, NV, MI and FL ranked their issues of concern in a fairly close approximation. The poll may be even more relevant with respect to Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), when half of the delegates to the two party conventions are chosen.
Carroll’s report includes an interesting chart ranking concerns by region. Readers may be surprised that southerners are more likely to rank the war in Iraq as a the top issue than are respondents from the east and west, that midwesterners are much more concerned about health care, or that westerners are the least concerned about the economy.
As for Party differences, Carroll writes:

Iraq ranks as the top voting issue for Republicans, independents, and Democrats. However, Democrats (46%) are much more likely than independents (34%) or Republicans (29%) to mention Iraq. Democrats are more likely than the other party groups to mention healthcare. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to mention illegal immigration (17% to 3%), homeland security and terrorism (17% to 4%), and abortion (6% to less than 0.5%)….Independents most frequently mention Iraq, the economy, healthcare, and immigration.

What I like about this poll is letting the respondents use their own language to rank their issues of concern. Gallup did what appears to be a good job of grouping terms, For example, “honesty/integrity/credibility of candidate.” Their word choices should be of intense interest for speeches, position papers, websites, ads, interviews and other tools of campaign messaging. On the other hand, the chosen words may mean something quite different to individual voters, just as they do in multiple choice polls. It would be interesting to see Lakoff’s take on the respondents’ chosen terms.

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