Between the President’s executive orders, a spiraling health care delivery infrastructure, and a bloated welfare state, candidates gearing up for a run in 2016 have no shortage of material for stump speeches and e-mail blasts.

But, as anyone who has looked at the data from previous cycles knows, some issues move voters to the polls, while others move voters to remain on the couch rating movies on Netflix.

Willingness to prioritize issues has been a problem for the right at least as long as I’ve been involved in politics. We worry that strategically promoting, say, conservative economic policies, means that we’re somehow downplaying the importance of other issues such as abortion, immigration, or the country’s whirling moral compass.

I don’t have a solution to this problem; but as a strategist, when it comes to choosing which issues to throw on the front burner during a political campaign, I look to the data. A new poll by Gallup rounds up the top concerns of Americans in 2014, and offers valuable insight for those looking to get an early start on platform building.

2014 was unique in that over the course of the year, four issues dominated the conversation enough to break double digits in the percentage of people who thought that particular problem was the nation’s most troubling.

Gallup explains how the numbers have shifted:

Some of the issues troubling Americans received uneven attention during the year. In particular, mentions of unemployment were consistently higher in the first half of 2014 than later in the year, reaching 23% in February. Also, race relations, usually mentioned by no more than 2% of Americans as the nation’s top problem, surged to 13% in December as recent legal decisions sparked protests nationwide against police treatment of blacks. Similarly, mentions of immigration spiked in July to 17% as thousands of undocumented children from Central and South America created a crisis at the southern U.S. border. But this is the first time since 2001 that no single issue averaged 20% or more for the year.


Which issues are consistently at the top of everyone’s mind? The economy, jobs, and the government—all issues with easy, universal application, and all issues that conservatives can tackle head on without having to punt the moment a gender or race activist starts lobbing bombs.

Issues like health care, immigration, and education were also important to Americans in 2014; they made the list, even if they didn’t break through to the top 3. These kinds of issues, however, have the potential to run hot, and they’re best saved for more targeted outreach. The issues in the top 3, in contrast, are great issues to stump on when you’re trying to get to know the voters in whichever community you’re targeting.

Gallup Most Important Problems 2001-2014

Judging by my own experience, I can tell you that voters this cycle didn’t want to hear about how the economy affected them as minorities, or how the education system influenced their futures as women. They wanted to hear about how laws passed by Congress would affect their ability to put gas in the car, go to work, buy toilet paper, pay for the heat, and put food on the table. If we want to win in 2016, we need to come out of the gate with explanations and policies that address those concerns, as opposed to issues that immediately dare someone with an opposing opinion to have a problem with our candidates.

Gallup’s analysts express concern that the “dispersion of public concern” could make political messaging in the 2016 cycle more complex, and I think that’s true; but I also think that by focusing our efforts on what concerns Americans most, we can build a foundation for our messaging on other “red meat” issues that activists and local-level politicos like to sink their teeth in to.

In a nutshell, if we remember that the average voter is the polar opposite of the average politico, we’ll do just fine.


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