Defense, Economy Top Concerns

Economic problems and concerns about foreign affairs, including terrorism and Iraq, are viewed as the top problems facing the country. In an open-ended format, 37% volunteer such defense and security concerns as the most important problem facing the country, with Iraq and terrorism mentioned most often. About as many (35%) cite the nation’s economic problems as most important, with many specifically mentioning the job situation. This reflects a changing public focus from the past two years. In early 2002, and again last year, roughly twice as many respondents cited defense and security issues as mentioned economic concerns.

About a quarter of Americans say other social and domestic issues need the most attention, with health care (5%), immigration (3%), poverty (3%), declining morality and values (3%) and education (3%) most frequently cited. Another 5% mention concerns with the government and politics.

GOP Still Strong on Security

Security and defense remain the Republicans’ strong suits, with the notable exception of the ongoing situation in Iraq.

By 56%-19%, people who volunteer terrorism and homeland defense as the biggest problem facing the country say the Republicans, not the Democrats, are best able to address the issue.

Iraq is much more of a concern to Democrats than Republicans. And overall, 40% of the public believes the Democrats are better able to handle this situation, compared with 31% who favor the Republicans.

The greatest Democratic advantage is on the economy and jobs. Among Americans who rate this as the biggest problem facing the nation, 39% favor the Democratic Party to do a better job, and 27% the Republican Party.

Domestic Priorities Rise

While the priority Americans place on a variety of issues has remained fairly stable since 2002, some domestic issues, which fell in importance following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, have slowly regained their relevance. Despite recent reports suggesting an improving economy, the percentage of Americans rating strengthening the economy as a top priority has risen from 71% to 79% over the past three January surveys.

The number who place great importance on providing health insurance to the uninsured fell from 61% to 43% following the 9/11 attacks. But the percentage rating that a top priority rebounded to 45% in 2003 and 54% today. And the gains for the environment and education are particularly notable. Still, nearly all domestic priorities ­ with the prominent exception of jobs and the economy ­ are seen as less important now than in January 2001, before the 9/11 attacks.

Overall, while the economy and homeland security share top billing, improving the educational system and the job situation rank among the most important priorities to the American public. And strong majorities continue to rate making both the Social Security system and Medicare financially sound as top priorities. At the other end of the spectrum, passing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is ranked as a top priority by just 22% of Americans, and only one-in-ten say expanding America’s space program is a top priority.

Defense Ranks High Among Women, Elderly

Just under half (48%) rank strengthening the military as a top priority, unchanged over the past four years. This remains higher on the public agenda than developing a missile defense system, which 35% rate as a top priority. Interestingly, women continue to rank both of these issues as higher priorities than do men. Currently, 52% of women say strengthening the military is a top priority, compared with 44% of men. About four-in-ten women (39%) rate missile defense as an important priority, compared with 30% of men.

Older Americans also place a much higher priority on defense issues than do younger people. Six-in-ten of those age 65 and older rank strengthening the military as a top priority, compared with just 35% of people under age 30.

Deficit a Growing Concern

Public concern over the growing budget deficit is clearly on the rise. Today, 51% rate reducing the budget deficit as a top priority for the president and Congress, up from 40% a year ago, and 35% in January of 2002. But public emphasis on this issue has not reached the levels measured in the 1990s. In December of 1994, following Republican victories in the midterm elections, roughly two-thirds (65%) rated reducing the budget deficit as a top priority.

One important difference from the 1990s, however, is that the views of Republicans and Democrats have reversed. During the Clinton administration, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to view deficit reduction as a top priority. But this is less of a priority to Republicans today. Currently, 57% of Democrats rate deficit reduction as a top priority, compared with 44% of Republicans. But there has been a growing emphasis on the deficit since 2002 among both Democrats and Republicans.

Dueling Partisan Agendas

The budget deficit is not the only issue on which there is a significant partisan gap. While the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats agree that defending against terrorism and strengthening the nation’s economy are top priorities for the coming year, there is little common ground otherwise.

The biggest differences arise over protecting the environment and helping people who are struggling economically. Democrats are almost twice as likely as Republicans to rate the environment as a top priority (59% vs. 31%). And Democrats are at least 20 points more likely to rank three items dealing with economic concerns ­ providing health insurance to the uninsured, improving the job situation, and dealing with problems of the poor and needy ­ as top priorities for the president and Congress over the coming year.

Far more Republicans than Democrats rate defending the nation against terrorism as a major priority. But aside from that issue, Republicans place a higher priority on only a few other items, two of them defense related. More than six-in-ten Republicans (61%) say strengthening the military is a top priority, compared with just 43% of Democrats, and Republicans also rate missile defense as a higher priority (45% vs. 35%). And while a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is a relatively low priority even among Republicans, they are nearly twice as likely as Democrats to rank this among the most important items for the coming year (34% vs 18%).

Members of the two parties generally agree on the importance of some issues. Roughly the same numbers of Republicans and Democrats place great emphasis on dealing with the moral breakdown in the country and the need to reduce middle class taxes. And three-in-ten in both parties say dealing with global trade issues should be a top priority. Reducing crime is a slightly higher priority among Democrats than Republicans (60% vs. 51%). But this largely reflects a much greater concern about crime among African American respondents (73% of whom rate as a top priority, compared with 50% of whites) who predominantly identify as Democrats.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans rate reforming the campaign finance system as a particularly high priority, and expanding the space program is at the bottom of the list for just about everyone. Just 9% of Republicans and 10% of Democrats place space exploration as a top priority for 2004. Expanding America’s space program is of little priority to young and old alike, and across all parts of the country. But education is a factor in opinions on this issue: People who have not completed high school are almost three times more likely than high school graduates to rank increase space exploration as a top priority (22% vs 8%).

Poor Not Seeing Recovery

Wealthy Americans are twice as likely as the poor to say the economy is recovering. By nearly ten-to-one (60% to 7%) people earning $75,000 a year or more say the economy is recovering, rather than in a state of depression. Those earning less than $20,000 annually are just as likely to see a long-term depression (34%) as an economic recovery (29%).

Similarly, African American and Hispanics are less optimistic about the economy at this stage. Only about three-in-ten in these minority groups say the economy is recovering, compared with nearly half (49%) of whites.

Both of these patterns also are linked to partisanship, since the poor and minorities are far more likely to think of themselves as Democrats. While two-thirds of Republicans say the economy is recovering, just 27% of Democrats agree. Another 27% of Democrats say the economy is stuck in a depression that will last a long time, while only 5% of Republicans agree.

There are few regional differences in this economic evaluation. Americans living in the East, Midwest, South and West are about equally optimistic in their ratings of the current economic situation.

Dean, Likely Primary Voters Close Ideologically

Although Dean is viewed by the general public as the most liberal of the Democratic candidates ­ a rating that places him further from the average citizen, compared with the president ­ likely Democratic primary voters give Dean the same ideological rating that they give themselves (about 4.0 on the scale of 1 to 6). Likely Democratic primary voters are registered Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents who say they are very or somewhat likely to vote in a Democratic primary this year.

By contrast, the other major candidates are perceived as falling to the right of the average primary voter. John Edwards, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Kerry all receive average ideology rating of approximately 3.6 on the scale, with Wesley Clark slightly further to the right at 3.4. Likely Democratic primary voters rate Bush as conservative, but not much more so than does the general public (2.6 primary voters, 2.7 general public).

Supporters of the candidates also differ by ideology, with backers of Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun the most liberal, followed by those choosing Al Sharpton and Dean. Likely voters favoring Clark, Lieberman, and Gepha
rdt fall near the average for all primary voters. Those who favor Edwards or Kerry are slightly more conservative than the average primary voter.

Sen. Hillary Clinton is rated very close to Howard Dean on the ideology scale by Democratic primary voters (at 3.9). But the general public views her as much more liberal even than Dean, at an overall rating of 4.4. This is driven largely by the views of Republicans, who place Clinton at 4.9, nearly one-half point beyond Dean on the scale. Independents also rate Clinton as more liberal than Dean (at 4.3 for Clinton, compared with 4.0 for Dean). The views of men and women about Clinton’s ideology are similar.

At the start of the nominating process in 2000, the two major contenders for the Democratic nomination ­ Al Gore and Bill Bradley ­ were rated as somewhat more conservative by Democrats than Howard Dean is rated today. Gore received an average ideology rating of 3.6 from Democrats in January 2000 (about the same as Edwards, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Kerry today). Bradley was rated at 3.7. Compared with Democrats, the public as a whole, however, saw Gore as more liberal ­ 3.9 on the scale (compared with the general public’s overall 4.2 rating of Dean this year).

Greater Ideological Polarization

Dean’s perceived liberalism may not be hurting him with the likely Democratic primary electorate because the Democrats themselves have shifted to the left since the 2000 election. In January 2000, Democratic respondents placed themselves at an average of 3.7 on the ideology scale; this year they are at 4.0. At the same time, Republican voters shifted somewhat the right, from a 2000 average of 2.7 to 2.6 today. This pattern is consistent with shifts seen by Pew on a number of specific issues and political values. (See “Equally Divided and Increasingly Polarized: The 2004 Political Landscape,” Nov. 5, 2003.)

But shifts by Democrats and Republicans have not changed the overall ideological orientation of the public; the average ideology score for American adults has been relatively stable since 1987. That year, it was 3.4; since 1996, it has been 3.3. Independents have also changed little over the period, falling slightly to the left of the average for all citizens. What has changed is the ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans: since 1987 it has doubled, from 0.7 to 1.4 today.

With a few important exceptions, the ideological differences among demographic groups are fairly small. Men and women fall close together on the scale (3.3 for men, 3.4 for women). Similarly, different age groups are close on the scale, except for a conservative tilt among those age 65 and older. Registered voters (at 3.3) are a little more conservative than those who are not registered. African Americans and Hispanics (at 4.0 and 3.8, respectively) are considerably more liberal than are whites (at 3.2). Conservative Republicans live up to their name, falling at 2.1 on the scale, while liberal Democrats anchor the opposite end of the scale (at 4.8).

Dean Continues to Lead Democratic Field

The survey finds little movement over the past month in voter preferences among the Democratic field of candidates. Dean continues to lead, with 26% of likely primary voters citing him as their first choice. Clark and Lieberman are the choice of 14% and 13%, respectively. Gephardt and Kerry trail (at 9% and 8%). Only Clark has shown movement during the past month; 10% backed him in a survey conducted in December and early January.

Dean also does the best of all candidates as a second choice (16%), with Clark (12%), Lieberman and Gephardt (11% each), and Kerry (9%) close behind. There is little evidence of “stop Dean” sentiment in the second-choice preferences of people favoring the other major candidates. Half of Clark’s supporters pick Dean as a second choice, and smaller pluralities of supporters of Lieberman (23%), Gephardt (28%), and Kerry (24%) do so as well. A plurality of Dean supporters (27%) would pick Clark second, followed by Gephardt (20%).

Most likely voters (58%) in the Democratic primaries say that picking a candidate closest to them on the issues is more important than choosing the candidate with the best chance of defeating President Bush in the fall (37%). More voters today than in November say they are looking for a candidate who is close to them on issues (in November 49% said this). Liberal Democratic voters are more likely to say they are looking for someone who can defeat President Bush (45% say this), compared with conservative and moderate Democrats (34%).

Increasingly, Dean is viewed by likely Democratic voters as the candidate best able to defeat Bush in the fall; 36% say that, up from 19% in November. One-in-ten likely Democratic voters (10%) believe Clark has the best chance of defeating Bush, while 7% say that about Gephardt and 6% cite Lieberman. Dean does much better among likely voters who say it is more important to pick a candidate who can win in November (46%) than he does among those looking chiefly for compatibility on the issues (29%).

Campaign Interest Higher Than in ’92, ’96

Although a majority of Democrats (60%) are paying at least somewhat close attention to the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, there has been relatively little increase in attention since September (when 56% were keeping up). Among the general public, interest in the race has not increased markedly since then (46% now, 42% then). Currently 16% are following the campaign very closely, with another 30% paying fairly close attention.

But from a historical perspective, the public’s interest in the current campaign is relatively high, especially when the fact that only one party has a contested primary. At this point in the 1992 and 1996 election season, only 11% and 10%, respectively, were following the race very closely. In January 2000, 19% were following very closely, at a point when there were competitive contests in both the Democratic and Republican nomination process.

Public More Aware of Candidates

More people today are aware of the Democratic candidates than in September. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) can come up with the name of at least one candidate when asked who is running for the nomination. A quarter (25%) can accurately recall three or more of the Democratic candidates, compared with only 15% who could do this in September. Democrats are no more able than Republicans to cite the candidates’ names.

Dean is by far the best known of the Democratic candidates, with 44% able to mention him ­ up 25 percentage points since September. By contrast, gains in visibility by the other candidates have been much more modest. Fewer than a quarter (23%) mentioned John Kerry (up four points), 21% mentioned Joe Lieberman (up seven points), 19% mentioned Wesley Clark (up four points), and 18% mentioned Dick Gephardt (up eight points).

Looking to November

President Bush holds a solid lead over a generic Democrat as voters look ahead to the November election. Nearly half (48%) of registered voters say they would like to see the president reelected, while 38% say they would prefer to see a Democrat win.

Overall, roughly two-thirds of voters (65%) say they have already made up their minds who they will support (36% made up their minds for Bush, 29% for a Democrat).

A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier in January shows that there are no significant differences among the leading Democratic candidates when paired in a match-up against the president. Bush holds a 10-15 point lead regardless of whether his opponent is Clark, Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry or Lieberman.

Overall, 42% of registered voters sided with Bush in all six head-to-head tests, and another 12% favored him in most cases. By comparison, 32% sided with all six of the Democrats over Bush, and another 10% usually sided with the Democrats. Put in other terms, of roughly three-quarters of voters (74%) say their general election preferences are unaffected by the outcome of the Democratic primary.

More See Bush Victory

With favorable economic news and the capture of Saddam Hussein, public perceptions of the likely outcome of the 2004 election have shifted in favor of the president.

Currently, 61% think Bush will be reelected as president in November, while just 21% think a Democratic candidate is more likely to win. This shift has occurred across partisan lines, as Republicans have become more convinced that Bush will prevail, and Democrats have become more pessimistic about their party’s chances.

Four months ago, most Democrats were optimistic about winning back the White House (by a 59% to 27% margin). Today, Democrats are divided, with 42% predicting a Democratic victory, and 39% a Bush win.

Evaluating the Bush Presidency

Bush’s overall job approval is strong when compared with previous presidents at a comparable point in their reelection campaigns. Currently, 56% approve of the president’s overall job performance, while 34% disapprove. This is slightly better than the approval ratings of both Reagan and Clinton ­ and Bush’s father ­ at this point in their first terms.

Moreover, the public gives Bush somewhat better ratings for handling the situation in Iraq than it did in September (59% approve now, 52% then).

The public is evenly divided over Bush’s handling of the economy (47% approve/47% disapprove). Still, that represents a modest improvement since September, when a 48% plurality gave him negative marks on the economy.

More Americans believe that in the long run, the accomplishments of the Bush administration will outweigh its failures (49%), rather than the reverse (36%). But evaluations of the president’s performance vary significantly depending on the issue.

At this point, Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq is seen as the defining issue in his presidency. Among both Democrats and Republicans, ratings of Bush’s handling of Iraq have a far greater impact on perceptions of how he will be judged by history than ratings of his economic performance. Not surprisingly, Republicans overwhelmingly believe history will find the administration’s accomplishments outweigh its failures (by an 82% to 9% margin), while Democrats largely disagree (63% think the president’s failures will outweigh his accomplishments, 22% take the other position).

Not His Father’s Economy

Recent news of an economic turnaround, and increasingly consistent partisan support, make the president’s reelection prospects entirely different from the situation his father faced in 1992. In January 1992, fully 38% of Americans said the country was “in an economic depression that will last a long time,” and another 51% said the nation was “in a recession that would pass fairly soon.” Just 7% saw America in an economic recovery.

Today, 45% of Americans say the nation’s economy is recovering, and just 18% foresee a long term depression. Not surprisingly, there is a strong partisan element to these views. Two-thirds of Republicans say the economy is in a recovery, just as many Democrats say we are in a recession (42%) or a depression (27%).

The dominance of economic concerns in the public’s mind 12 years ago cannot be overstated. In January 1992, fully 76% cited economic problems as most important, while virtually no one expressed concern over foreign policy. While the proportion citing the economy as most important has been growing (from 16% in 2002 to 29% in 2003 to 35% today), it is far from the overwhelming concern it was in 1992. And nearly four-in-ten (37%) now mention concerns related to foreign affairs and terrorism as most important, issues on which the Republican party is typically seen as very strong.

Interestingly, while economic evaluations and priorities were starkly different 12 years ago than they are today, the public’s assessment of the outcome of the general election was fairly similar. Although President H. W. Bush was in a much weaker state politically, more people predicted he would win in November than say that about the current president (66% vs. 61%).

Monthly News Interest: Iraq, Economy

News about the current situation in Iraq continues to garner widespread public interest, and there is no sign that interest is waning. Currently, 48% say they are following news from Iraq very closely, and another 39% are following fairly closely, with only 13% not following the story closely. This is comparable to numerous measures taken since the end of major combat in April 2003.

Similarly, public attention to reports about the condition of the U.S. economy remains firm, with 37% following very closely and another 41% following fairly closely.

Roughly a third (35%) very closely followed news about the recent Code Orange alert about the increased risk of a terrorist attack. This is comparable to the previous two code orange alerts, each of which were followed very closely by 39% of Americans.

Recent reports about a case of mad cow disease in Washington state were very closely followed by 29% of Americans, and another 42% followed fairly closely. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) say they did not follow this story closely. Interest in this story was consistent across all parts of the country, though residents of rural areas followed somewhat more closely (37% followed very closely, compared with 27% in non-rural areas). Parents were no more likely to follow this story very closely than those with no children living at home.

Most Americans continue to be paying little or no attention to the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Currently, 53% say they are not following the race closely, 30% are following fairly closely, and 16% are following election news very closely.

Half of Americans followed the Dec. 26 earthquake in Iran that killed at least 30,000 people either very (16%) or fairly (34%) closely.

This is comparable to Americans’ attention to other major international earthquakes, such as the January 2001 earthquake in India that killed over 20,000 people (15% followed very closely) and the June 1990 Iranian earthquake that killed 40-50,000 (20% followed very closely). Clearly, earthquake events within the U.S. garner significantly more attention ­ the two largest California earthquakes within the past 15 years (each resulting in around 60 deaths) garnered overwhelming public interest.

One-in-five Americans (19%) followed news about the successful landing of a NASA spacecraft on Mars very closely, and 36% say they followed this story fairly closely.

Fully two-thirds say they saw some of the pictures sent back by Spirit. Even a third of those who say they did not follow this news story at all closely saw these images. Overall interest in this story was consistent across the country, though men were somewhat more interested than women. Three-quarters of men saw pictures sent back from Mars, compared with 57% of women.

There is a small segment of the public that places a high priority on space exploration, and their interest in news about Spirit was much higher than the rest of the public. People who say expanding America’s space pro
gram should be a top priority were roughly three times as likely as those who say it should not be a priority to have followed news about Spirit very closely (32% vs 12%).