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What “Most Important Problem” Says About Election

by Lydia Saad, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

Unlike many past elections in which trouble with either the economy or foreign affairs dominated the public's concerns -- and unlike the two most recent elections when neither set of issues was particularly important -- both are poised to be important this year.

This conclusion is drawn from analysis of Gallup's long-term "most important problem" question in which respondents, unaided, are asked to name what they think is the most important issue facing the country. Since the question was first asked in 1939, it has served as a useful barometer of issues on the national agenda.

For instance, in October 1968, the top issue named by the public was Vietnam; in September 1963, it was race relations; throughout 1979, it was inflation; in March 1948, it was war. Overall, the trend represents a useful summary of U.S. social, political, and economic history.

The graph focuses on the last 40 years, from 1964 through today. All responses related to the economy generally (including the economy, unemployment, and the recession) and all mentions related to international matters (including war, terrorism, U.S. relations with other countries, and national defense) are collapsed into two categories. Results from all "most important problem" askings for each year are averaged, and for those surveys in which multiple responses were allowed in the original interviews, the results were recalculated to total only 100%. The result is a revealing picture of the impact that economic and international problems have had on the public at different times.

One conclusion that can easily be drawn is that since the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973 (marking the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War), public concern about the economy has almost always trumped public concern about international problems. The two came close in 1986, when Cold War tensions raised public fear about war, and again in 2002, when terrorism and the U.S. actions in Afghanistan increased the profile of foreign affairs.

Secondly, the balance of concerns today is notable because the economy and international affairs are both somewhat elevated. In Gallup's most recent readings from January and February 2004, the average percentage of Americans citing the nation's economy as the top problem was 26% and the average percentage citing international problems, including the war in Iraq and terrorism, was 22%. This puts the economy and international affairs on roughly equal footing as public concerns.

By contrast, in 2000, when the nation was enjoying the third consecutive year of relative peace and prosperity, neither the economy nor international issues were mentioned by more than 10% of Americans. (In fact, according to this data, the period from 1998-2000 was remarkably tranquil for the country.) In 1996, the average percentage mentioning the economy was greater than the percentage mentioning international problems, but these figures were only 15% and 5%, respectively. In every presidential election year since 1964, one issue or the other was a concern to a considerable share of the public, and to a greater extent than the other.

Specifically: In 1992, 37% of the public mentioned the economy, while only 3% named international issues, for a net +34 rating for the economy. Even greater numbers identified the economy as the premier problem for the country in 1984, 1980, and 1976. Prior to that, in the three election years spanning 1964 to 1972, international issues were dominant for the public, leading economic concerns by 10 points to 35 points.




Net + Economy

Net + Int'l


























































Another way to interpret these data is by contrasting the public's economic concerns with the outcome of presidential elections involving a president running for re-election (or for their first full term in cases of presidents who assumed office in the line of succession). While there is not a perfect correlation between the level of net concern about the economy in an election year and the margin by which an incumbent wins or loses, there is clearly a relationship.

In three elections since 1964 in which the incumbent lost the election, net mentions of the economy were 34% or higher. Perhaps most notably, in 1980, public concern about the economy was exceptionally high, and swamped public concern about international matters (net 51%). President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election that year by the widest margin of any incumbent since President Herbert Hoover.

At the other end of the spectrum, in election years in which public concern about foreign affairs outweighed the economy (represented by negative net-economy mentions), the incumbents won handily. In between, Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also enjoyed comfortable victories despite net-economy mentions of +10 and +24, respectively.


Net Mention
of the
(Economy minus

Win/Lose Margin



Jimmy Carter loses re-election ('80)



Gerald Ford loses election ('76)



George Bush loses re-election ('92)



Ronald Reagan wins re-election ('84)



Bill Clinton wins re-election ('96)


George W. Bush? ('04)



Richard Nixon wins re-election ('72)



Lyndon Johnson wins election ('64)

Bottom Line

Numerous issues show up on Gallup's most important problem question as public concerns: crime, healthcare, drugs, education, welfare, and immigration, to name a few. But many political observers believe that in the context of elections, the economy always matters most, except when international problems are present, and then those take precedent.

It is not clear what the current pattern of responses means for President George W. Bush's chances of re-election. On one hand, no recent president running for re-election in a year when net mentions of the economy were as low as they are today (+4) had any difficulty winning re-election. On the other hand, no other incumbent has faced an electorate bearing substantial concerns about both the economy and foreign affairs.

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