Partisanship Shapes Views of Nation's Most Important Problem

by Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll

The economy, unemployment and jobs, and the situation in Iraq have been Americans' primary "top-of-mind" concerns over the past three months. These issues receive the highest number of mentions when Gallup asks respondents to name the most important problem facing the country today. But, there are some key differences between Republicans' and Democrats' answers. Although the economy and Iraq are among the top mentions for both Republicans and Democrats, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to mention morality and terrorism as the nation's top problem. Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt than Republicans to identify issues relating to the economy and Iraq as the top problems.

Gallup has been measuring the "most important problem" facing the nation since the late-1930s. The responses have varied significantly over the years, reflecting the vastly different economic, military, and political circumstances that the country has passed through. This analysis examines responses to this question from November 2003 through mid-January of this year* -- a period of relative stability in public perceptions of the top problem.

The Most Important Problem Among the American Public

Two main issues have dominated the news over the past year: the state of the nation's economy and the situation in Iraq. These same two issues not surprisingly rank as the most important problems facing the United States in Gallup's November-January aggregate. The economy and the situation in Iraq are each mentioned by 18% of Americans as the nation's top problem in the three survey samples included in this analysis. Unemployment or jobs is mentioned by 12% of respondents, and 9% mention terrorism. Other issues with fewer mentions include healthcare or health insurance, ethics or morality, and government, poor leadership, or corruption.

Most Important Problem Facing the Nation
(November 2003 -- January 2004)
Combined Sample of N=3,022 Respondents

National
Adults

%

Economy (in general)

18

Fear of war/situation Iraq/feeling of fear

18

Unemployment or jobs

12

Terrorism

9

Healthcare/health insurance

8

Ethics/Morals/Lack of integrity/family decline

7

Poor leadership/corruption/Congress/government

7

Education

6

Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness

5

Foreign aid

4

National security

3

Immigration/Illegal aliens

3

Federal budget deficit

3

Social Security/Medicare

3

Lack of money

2

Children's needs/way children are raised

2

Lack of respect for each other

2

Crime/Violence

2

International issues/foreign affairs

2

Taxes

2

Drugs

2

Unifying the country

1

Judicial system

1

Welfare

1

Race relations

1

Gap between rich and poor

1

Inflation/High cost of living

1

Environment

1

Presidential election/election reform

1

The Most Important Problem for Republicans, Democrats

An analysis of the response differences to this question between Republicans and Democrats shows that partisanship is related to perceptions about which issues are the most important facing the nation.

Most Important Problem Facing the Nation by Partisanship
(November 2003 -- January 2004)

Reps.

Inds.

Dems.

Reps. minus Dems.

%

%

%

Ethics/Morals/Lack of integrity/family decline

12

5

3

+9

Terrorism

13

8

6

+7

Immigration/Illegal aliens

4

5

1

+3

National security

4

2

2

+2

Children's needs/way children are raised

2

2

1

+1

Lack of respect for each other

2

2

1

+1

Unifying the country

2

2

1

+1

Judicial system

1

2

1

0

Education

5

6

5

0

Welfare

1

*

1

0

Race relations

1

*

*

0

Gap between rich and poor

*

1

*

0

Federal budget deficit

3

3

3

0

Inflation/High cost of living

1

1

1

0

International issues/foreign affairs

2

1

2

0

Drugs

2

2

2

0

Lack of money

1

2

2

-1

Crime/Violence

1

3

2

-1

Taxes

1

2

2

-1

Environment

*

2

1

-1

Foreign aid

3

4

4

-1

Presidential election/election reform

*

1

2

-2

Social Security/Medicare

2

2

4

-2

Poor leadership/corruption/Congress/government

6

6

9

-3

Healthcare/Health insurance

7

9

10

-3

Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness

3

4

7

-4

Economy (in general)

16

17

21

-5

Unemployment or jobs

9

10

16

-7

Fear of war/situation Iraq/feeling of fear

14

18

21

-7

N=

1,119

960

924

Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say the following issues are the most important:

  • Ethics and morality. There is a nine-percentage-point difference between the number of Republicans and Democrats who say ethics, morals, family decline, and lack of integrity are the most important problems facing the country, with 12% of Republicans offering this response and only 3% of Democrats.
  • Terrorism. Thirteen percent of Republicans mention terrorism as the most important problem facing the country, compared with just 6% of Democrats who do.

Democrats, meanwhile, are more inclined to view these as the most important problems facing the country:

  • The situation in Iraq. Although Iraq ranks as one of the top problems named by both Republicans and Democrats, Democrats mention the war in Iraq, feelings of fear in the country, or fear of war more often than Republicans do, by a 21% to 14% margin.
  • Unemployment and jobs. Similarly, there is a seven-percentage-point difference between the number of Democrats and Republicans who feel that unemployment or the job situation is the top problem. Sixteen percent of Democrats mention unemployment/jobs, while 9% of Republicans offer this response.
  • The nation's economy. The economy ranks as the nation's most important problem among both Republicans and Democrats. However, 21% of Democrats say the economy is the nation's most important problem, compared with just 16% of Republicans.
  • Poverty, hunger, and homelessness. There is also a slight four-point difference between Democrats (7%) and Republicans (3%) who name poverty, hunger, or homelessness as the nation's most important problem.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 3,022 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 3-5, 2003, Dec. 12-15, 2003, and Jan. 12-15, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±2 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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