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What Issues Are Most Important To Voters in This Election? The Answer Depends On The Question

Election polling has entered hyperdrive, with several polls released daily. As Nov. 6 draws near, it is important to keep in mind that question wording and format do matter, sometimes quite a lot. In our October Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, we measured voters’ top issue priorities two ways: First, we asked one group to name the most important issue to their vote for president in an open-end question, allowing respondents to say in their own words what is on their minds.1 Second, using a defined list of nine issues, we asked a separate group of voters to rate each as either “extremely important”, “very important”, “somewhat important”, or “less important than that”.2 There is no “right way” to ask this question, as both questions provide valuable, but different, information. The open-end approach helps illuminate the issues on the forefront of voters’ thoughts, while the close-end approach elicits their opinion about issues on the agenda, including some that may not be top of mind. This data note will compare the results from these two questions and illustrate how results can differ depending on the question approach that is utilized.

There is no denying this fact: No matter how you ask it, the economy is clearly the number one issue for a majority of voters. Among likely voters,52 percent rate the economy and jobs as “extremely important” to their vote for president. Similarly, when asked to volunteer their own answer for the most important issue to their vote, six in ten (59 percent) voters mentioned the economy.

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While the economy is tops in both approaches, the rest of the issue priority list differs depending on the question approach. In the open-end question, health care comes into the second slot (mentioned by 21 percent), followed closely by foreign policy (18 percent).4 But, foreign policy drops out of the top three and is ranked seventh out of the nine issues in the close-ended question, while health care still makes a strong showing in the defined list with a little over a third of likely voters saying the health reform law (37 percent) and Medicare (36 percent) are “extremely important” to their vote. These health care issues are neck and neck with the deficit (38 percent) and taxes (34 percent) for the number two spot in this approach. While the federal budget deficit and taxes are high up on the defined list, fewer than ten percent of voters offer up either issue as most important to their vote (8 percent of likely voters mention the deficit, 5 percent taxes) when asked to name one.

Issues related to health care are clearly on many voters’ minds, but the open-end question fails to show the nuances of what people mean by “health care”. In the defined list approach Medicare is clearly towards the top of the issue priority list (statistically tied for second), but in the open-end approach few specifically name Medicare as the main factor to their vote for president. Just three percent mention Medicare, which were then rolled into the general health care category. One characteristic does apply to both approaches: Seniors are more likely to rate Medicare as “extremely important” (50 percent versus 32 percent for those ages 18-64) and are also more likely to name the issue as important to their vote in the open-end. In fact, one in ten senior voters volunteer Medicare as their top voting issue compared to just one percent of non-seniors.

These differences are also seen when looking at voters by their political party identification. This pattern is particularly evident among likely voters who are Republican. The economy is still the top issue for these voters, but the deficit sharply drops from the second most important issue when asked as part of a defined list (rated as “extremely important” to their vote by 58 percent) to barely cracking the top five in the open-end, with one in ten (12 percent) naming it as the most important issue.

Differences in Voters

So what issue is really on voters’ minds? In the current election, the economy is the number one issue regardless of the strategy used to answer this question. But, depending on the question approach, the issue directly following the economy can be up for interpretation both among voters overall and within each subgroup. It seems as though health care and foreign policy are other top issues on their minds, but the deficit, ACA, Medicare, and taxes also rise towards the top when the question reminds them of those issues. Our advice: Even though the economy is at the forefront of voters’ minds, other issues are still a factor, so look for both approaches in the days ahead, take all data points into account and don’t limit your poll watching to just one poll.

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1. Note: for the open-end question up to two responses were accepted. Figures reported for this approach are “NET” percentages. For example, “economy and jobs” also includes mentions of “unemployment” and “jobs moving overseas”.
2. For full question wording and results, see Kaiser Family Foundation, Health Tracking Poll, October 2012, http://www.kff.org/kaiserpolls/8381.cfm.
3. In this data note, likely voters are defined as those that reported being registered to vote and either ‘absolutely certain’ or ‘probably’ planning to vote.
4. Note: The field period for this tracking poll (October 18th through 23rd) overlapped with the final presidential debate on October 22nd, which focused on the topic of foreign policy.