What Is Voters’ Highest Priority? There’s a Way to Find Out
Republicans in Congress have tried to discredit the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry by arguing that it distracts Congress from its real duties. One Republican-aligned group recently released a poll of 1,600 voters in four congressional districts that suggested Americans “prioritize issues over impeachment.”
But when we look at data on revealed priorities from people all over the country, we see something different. In reality, there are few things facing the nation that anyone, regardless of party, believes are a higher priority right now.
Most people would give up their preferred outcomes on health care, the environment or taxes if it meant getting what they want on impeachment. It is an important issue for almost everyone.
Starting in July 2019, U.C.L.A. partnered with the Democracy Fund on a large-scale project called Nationscape that involves surveying more than 6,000 people every week. The surveys are fielded by Lucid, a market-research company. Interviews are conducted online on a sample that is constructed to be representative of the American population. Nationscape has returned numbers that are consistent with other polls in the same period on common questions like presidential approval and right track/wrong track. For example, a Monmouth poll (61 percent), a YouGov/Economist poll (54 percent) and Nationscape (56 percent) all recently reported that more than half of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The data from the project — on over 110,000 people nationwide to date — suggest that the thing voters most want to focus on right now is whether to impeach the president.
To assess the impact of issues on people’s political choices, we use what researchers call conjoint experiments. Here’s how it works: We start with a list of 44 policies and eight other considerations that cover a large part of the political agenda. The list includes policies like whether to establish a $15 minimum wage; impose tax cuts for the middle class; restrict abortion; or increase oil and gas drilling. The considerations include outcomes like electing a woman or a gay man to the White House, or impeaching President Trump.
Each person who takes the survey sees two randomly selected collections of up to four policy positions. Sometimes the positions are in favor of the consideration — impeaching Mr. Trump, for example — and sometimes they are in opposition to it. We ask people to choose which collection of policy outcomes they prefer. Everyone in the survey does this 10 times and, in the course of doing so, reveals which positions they are drawn to and which ones are relatively less important.
In other words, rather than simply asking people to tell us whether a policy position is important to them, we let them show us. This decreases the possibility that people are misrepresenting or concealing their true priorities.
When repeated over tens of thousands of survey respondents, the data show which policy positions Americans care about most. This is different than knowing whether people are for or against something (though we ask that, too) because it requires people to reveal what is most important to them, not just their view on the issue.
Here’s an example. If people always choose the set of policies that contains a $15 minimum wage, regardless of what else is in the set, that tells us it’s important to them. In contrast, there are likely to be issues they never select. In reality, no single issue is so important that most people will sacrifice everything else they care about just to get it, but some have more impact on people’s choices than others.
What the Nationscape data reveal is clear: Impeachment is a top priority for almost everyone, regardless of whether they are in favor of it or against it.
Democrats are nearly 40 percentage points more likely to choose a collection of policies when it contains the position they agree with on impeaching Mr. Trump. Most of them want it to happen (among Democrats with an opinion on the topic, 86 percent support impeachment; the remainder don’t). But taken as a whole, the topic is something Democrats care a lot about right now.
The only policy more important to Democrats is family separation at the southern border (92 percent of Democrats with an opinion are opposed). Slightly less important to Democrats is whether to enact a total ban on abortion (87 percent against) or build a wall on the border (86 percent against). These are the topics Democrats are less willing to sacrifice relative to the other issues we ask about; they are issues with high impact.
To get these things, Democrats are willing to give up some issues like union rights (whether to oppose right-to-work laws) and whether to oppose an immigration system based only on merit. Even climate policies are seen as less important than impeaching the president.
Whether to impeach Mr. Trump, for example, is more important to Democrats than the economic issues being talked up by the party’s presidential candidates on the campaign trail, such as debt-free college (the 12th-most important issue) or “Medicare for all” (the 16th). The environmental package called the Green New Deal came in as the 25th-most important policy to Democrats — solidly middle of the pack (though 86 percent of Democrats with an opinion support it).
Republicans are similarly focused on impeachment. They are roughly 45 percentage points more likely to choose a basket of policies when it includes their preferred position on the topic (88 percent of Republicans with a position on impeachment do not favor it). It outweighs every other issue for Republicans — including parts of Mr. Trump’s and the party’s agenda, such as building a border wall. The Green New Deal is the sixth-most important issue for Republicans — a much higher ranking than among Democrats (nearly a quarter of Republicans support it, but many more are opposed to it or just not sure).
Just like Democrats, Republicans are willing to sacrifice getting what they want on other issues, like estate tax repeal and a merit-based immigration system. Rounding out the lower-impact issues for Republicans are school vouchers, trade restrictions and a public option for health insurance.
Impeachment, family separation, the border wall — these are all issues that have become important because of Mr. Trump or his policies. Even perennially important issues such as gun policy and abortion rights may be especially so at this moment because of recent mass shootings and the changing makeup of the Supreme Court. Mr. Trump has played a role in these matters, too, and will continue to do so.
Considered in this light, the priority Americans give to the impeachment inquiry makes sense.
Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, reflected recent G.O.P. sentiment when he said that impeachment “crowds out a number of issues” and stops “really important work we need to get done for the country.”
But our data suggest an ordering of priorities that indicates people care about issues that the president plays a role in. That they want to make sure he stays in office — or is removed — is one way voters can bring about the policies they most want to shape their world.
Lynn Vavreck, the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at U.C.L.A., and John Sides, professor of political science at Vanderbilt, are co-authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” Follow her on Twitter at @vavreck and him at @johnmsides.
Chris Tausanovitch is an associate professor at U.C.L.A.’s political science department. Follow him on Twitter at @ctausanovitch.
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