With the 2016 presidential election (too) rapidly approaching, opinion polls will be attracting even more attention than usual over the next year and a half. Yet if two recent Gallup surveys are any indication, many are likely to confuse more politicians and voters than they inform.
On the one hand, yesterday Gallup published the results of its latest annual sounding on “Americans’ level of concern about national problems.” The main findings, according to Gallup: The nation’s worries about terrorism and race relations are up sharply over early 2014 levels. Fifty-one percent of Americans said they “worried a great deal” about the possibility of a terror attack – compared with 39 percent in 2014. Twenty-eight percent gave a similar response about race relations, versus only 17 percent last year. And comparable concern about illegal immigration increased from 33 percent to 39 percent. You can see how a wide range of other issues polled at this link.
Given the rise of ISIS, police shootings of unarmed young black men in places like Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, and the uproar over Central American minors flooding the U.S. southern border, the above results are perfectly understandable.
On the other hand, they seem to contrast strikingly with the findings of a Gallup survey from the week before focusing on the “most important problem” Americans believe face the nation. Only six percent so identified “the situation in Iraq/ISIS;” only six percent tabbed “terrorism;” and “foreign policy” and “national security” garnered only four percent each.
Was there a closer correlation between the two polls on race relations and immigration? Absolutely not. Race also ranked as the leading national problem for only four percent of respondents, while “immigration/illegal aliens” was cited by only seven percent. You can see the full results at this link.
When I read the top problems results, I immediately thought that they spelled especially bad news for Republicans, many of whom hope and expect foreign policy issues to play a much bigger role in Election 2016 than they usually do in American politics. Nor did emphasizing immigration and border security issues seem especially promising based on these results. At the same time, public opinion seemed to break pretty strongly for Republicans on one important front – “Dissatisfaction with government” was the leading vote-getter in this poll, with 18 percent calling it the country’s number one problem.
But the “levels of concern” results just one week later sent almost exactly the opposite message for the two major parties.
Of course, office-seekers at all levels of government will be commissioning their own polls and reading countless others as they plot their strategies. And continually changing events could well affect the public’s stated priorities. But for the sake of at least minimally coherent campaigns and debates, I hope their collective message is a lot clearer than that sent by these two Gallup polls.