Economy Trumps Foreign Affairs as Key 2016 Election Issue
Monday, May 18th, 2015
Eighty-six percent of Americans say the economy will be extremely or very important to their vote next year, a significantly higher percentage than for any other issue. Concerns about terrorism rank high at 74% with foreign affairs further down the list at 61%.
The results are based on a May 6-7 Gallup poll, just as the campaign is getting underway with politicians from both parties officially declaring their candidacies. A forthcoming article on Gallup.com will show how Americans rate the most well-known candidate, Hillary Clinton, on each of these issues.
With a long time span between now and when voters cast their ballots next fall, the issues that prove pivotal during the election could certainly change. However, the economy will likely persist at or near the top of the list as it has done historically in both presidential election years and midterm election years and when the economy was weak, as in 2008, but also when it was strong as in 2000.
International matters have taken on increasing prominence in recent months as the Obama administration has dealt with challenges arising from the growing influence of Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria, ongoing conflict in the Middle East and significant policy disagreements with Russia. Terrorism, specifically, ranks fairly high on Americans' list of top election issues, as it typically does. Foreign affairs more broadly, however, ranks behind several issues, including the way government operates in Washington, healthcare policy and the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. Race relations and immigration have also been major news stories in recent months, but on a relative basis, Americans are less likely to say these issues are important to their presidential vote.
Importance of International Matters to Vote Fairly Typical
Americans' ascribed importance to terrorism and foreign affairs as election issues are no higher than what Gallup has measured in past presidential election cycles. The 74% currently saying terrorism will be extremely or very important to their vote is comparable with the averages of 74% in 2012 and 78% in 2008, but lower than the average of 86% in the 2004 cycle, when the 9/11 terror attacks were still fresh in Americans' memories and the Iraq war was becoming more controversial.
Likewise, Americans were more likely to say foreign affairs was important to their vote in the 2004 election cycle, averaging 68%, than in any other recent election cycle, including 1996 (62%), 2000 (58%), or currently (61%). Gallup did not ask Americans to rate foreign affairs as an election issue in the 2008 or 2012 presidential election cycles.
A historical analysis of Gallup's most important problem question back to 1948 confirms that international matters were more salient for Americans in 2004 than other recent elections. Earlier election years, including those in the 1950s and early 1960s during the early part of the Cold War, and in 1968 with the Vietnam War raging, also had high percentages of Americans viewing international matters as the most important problem facing the country. So far in 2015, 18% of Americans have named an international issue as the most important problem facing the country.
International Issues More Important to Republicans
The economy is the top ranked issue among Republicans, Democrats and independents, with close to 90% of each party group saying the economy will be important to their presidential vote. Party groups diverge, however, on the importance of international matters. Republicans are more likely than Democrats and independents to mention foreign affairs, with a Republican-Democratic gap of 19 percentage points. There is a smaller but still significant 10-point partisan gap in importance ratings of terrorism.
In addition to the two international issues, Republicans also rate the way government operates and immigration as more important election issues than Democrats or independents. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say race relations, income and wealth inequality, and healthcare are important to their vote. Independents are more similar to Republicans on healthcare and race relations and more similar to Democrats on inequality.
A healthy economy is fundamental to helping Americans achieve or maintain financial security, so it is not surprising that it usually ranks as the most important election issue for Americans in good economic times and bad. But the economy is far from the only issue that plays a role in determining election outcomes, and the importance of other issues to voters can make a difference. For example, the heightened importance of terrorism and foreign affairs in the post-9/11 era likely helped George W. Bush win re-election in 2004 in a competitive race with John Kerry because voters thought Bush would better handle both Iraq and terrorism than Kerry would.
Americans are not as concerned with international matters as they were back then, even though foreign policy challenges have been some of the more prominent issues in the news over the past year. At this point, the issue mix for 2016 looks to be fairly typical with the economy the top election issue and terrorism and foreign affairs ranking lower and about where they have been historically.