Are Political Candidates Talking About Issues Voters Care About?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This year has been a particularly tense and divided oneĀ in Congress with few issues seeing significant — or any — bipartisan cooperation. In fact, most of the major items on lawmaker’s to-do lists have been put off until after the midterms decide the majority in the Senate and reshuffle the partisan balance of power.

This means two things. First, it means that President Barack Obama has been taking more executive actions in lieu of congressional legislation, arguing that he is “not just going to sit around and wait for Congress to take action,” as White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest put it. Secondly, it means incumbents and challengers alike have a long list of key issues to launch campaigns around, including Obama’s executive actions and the subsequent lawsuit from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Candidates don’t always focus on what Congress needs to accomplish or the issues that Americans are most worried about. The reason they don’t restrict their campaigns to discussing the most pressing concerns is that these aren’t always the issues that get their districts voting and aren’t always the easiest or most successful method for drawing them to the polls.

Brookings Center for Effective Public Management released a study in September looking at congressional primaries and breaking down various data sets about candidates and campaigns. One of the subjects it examined was which issues were most mentioned by candidates in the 2014 House or Representative Primaries, as shown in the info-graphic below.

Obviously, the issue seeing the most attention in House primaries may not line up precisely with what’s being discussed by Senate candidates, or in post-primary races, but it’s a pretty fair bet that Obamacare wins most mentions across the board. Looking at Gallup’s September poll of “the most important problems facing this country today,” though, health care takes a mere 5 percent of the response, considerably under top concerns that included foreign policy, government dissatisfaction, the federal budget deficit, unemployment, the economy, and immigration. Health care tied with “ethic/moral/religious decline” for concern levels. So why the extreme focus on it? The answer is pretty obvious when you consider how divisive and partisan issue Obamacare has become: for many voters, it’s enough to know if a candidate is for or against the president’s signature health care effort to decide their vote, at least according to Rasmussen Reports polling.

Most voters who view the law Very Favorably would vote for the Democrat, while most of those who view it Very Unfavorably choose the Republican,” reports Rasmussen, noting that many key states have more unfavorable views. “So the Republican is earning sizable majority support from a much bigger pool of voters.” If you only have a minute of airtime to help a faceless individual in the crowd decide which party to vote with, Obamacare is a safer gamble with your funds — and since the subject is far more negative for Democrats than Republicans, it makes sense that more on the right bring it up (78.9 percent) than on the left (62.2 percent) in the Brookings study.

A few of Gallup respondents concerns match up with the focus of incumbents and their challengers in Brookings study; immigration and debt being two, and the economy being a catchall for many of the other topics most often discussed.

While this is an imperfect way to examine just how well politicians are tailoring their campaigns to concerns, it does say something about what issues are more often on the table. Another way to look at this comparison is to consider more specific examples, which can be rather more telling. State concerns are going to differ greatly from American concerns averaged overall and candidates are more likely to tailor their message to their own particular electorate.

Take senatorial campaigns in Alaska between Dan Sullivan (R) and incumbent Senator Mark Begich (D), where much of the race rhetoric has been dominated by competition over who is the “most Alaskan” and who is selling out to big money and party control in Washington D.C. On issues like the minimum wage, the two have relateable positions, both supporting an increase, Sullivan at the state level and Begich as the national level. On other items — for example, Obamacare — the two butt heads, and have done so in ads. But what is perhaps most often brought up is the issue of ad funding or where the campaign money is coming from: inside Alaska, or from Koch brothers and other wealthy outsiders.

John Stewart pointed this tendency out as it applies to the Iowa Senate races between Senator Joni Ernst (R) and her Democratic challenger Bruce Braley. Perhaps Americans are frustrated with the current government’s accomplishments, but that doesn’t prevent the topic of debate being shifted from gridlock to chickens and farming childhood.

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