Here at CityNews we’re pleased to feature a guest post from Justin Wallin, the Vice President of Probolsky Research LLC, which is a full-service opinion research organization, with government, corporate and political practice areas. A partial list of city clients includes Brisbane, Colton, Diamond Bar, Irvine, Fontana, Grand Terrace, Garden Grove, American Canyon, Mission Viejo, Pomona, Yorba Linda, and many more.
What do Voters Really Want?
By Justin Wallin, Probolsky Research LLC
But if they think that peoples’ top concerns reflect what they feel their elected representatives should be prioritizing, they need to think again…the two concepts do not necessarily parallel each other in the eyes of public opinion. In fact, the role that residents feel their elected officials should play may not fall within the purview of their office or may not even be legally feasible (more on this later).
So what do voters really want their elected officials to focus their attention on?
We begin many of our surveys by asking respondents what they feel is the most important issue facing their community. The question is open-ended, which unburdens respondents of potential answer bias and allows them to respond in a entirely independent fashion. While this serves to put respondents at ease and increase participant buy-in to the survey, the answers also allow us to put the results of the remainder of the project into perspective.
The results can be surprising – especially when what voters identify as the most important issues do not match up with the results of another question we present that asks what respondents feel their elected officials should prioritize.
For example, a recent regional project indicated that local voters ranked the economy and public safety as their top two issues by far, with other issues such as education, government, healthcare etc. trailing far behind these two.
However, when posed with the second question that asks what voters would like their mayor and city council to focus upon, the two top issues are “local schools and education” and “bringing jobs to the city.”
Voters look to different echelons of elected officials to fulfill different roles—roles not necessarily confined by the powers of their various offices. In this case voters place a high value on jobs and feel that local electeds should somehow play a key role in job creation. Voters also place a high value on education and have an expectation that their local elected officials will do something about improving it.
Given that most city elected officials (mayors, city council members) have little or no involvement in the affairs of local schools and education, they may be forgiven for assuming that voters don’t ascribe them responsibility on the matter. However, the reality of public opinion means that those city electeds who are neither aware of nor acknowledge the assumptions of their constituencies do so at their peril.
This sort of voter confusion doesn’t just affect local elected officials, either.
Just last month we ran across a report that illustrates how easy it is for Congressional Representatives to misread what issues are top of mind of their constituencies. The Congressional Conversational Index (CCI) is a monthly survey conducted by leading public affairs firm Adfero and communications software provider Fireside 21. The survey measures the average number of contacts that U.S. Representatives receive in terms of specific issues, such as the environment, jobs and so forth. The CCI is an interesting tool in terms of grassroots lobbying and constituent management.
What is striking is that those issues that are ranked the highest in terms of frequency of constituent contact are consistently not those that statistically valid research confirms as issues that are top of mind to the broader populace.
For instance, in June of this year, the top ten issues on the CCI were (1) Financial Services (2) Environment (3) Immigration (4) Health (5) Energy (6) Medicare (7) Campaigns/ Elections (8) Tax (9) Foreign Affairs (10) Judiciary.
(For a graph of the data, please see here)
In contrast, for at least the past eighteen months, when we ask voters what issues they want their Congressional Representatives to prioritize – the top issue has consistently been “the Economy and Jobs” (in this case perfectly aligning with what voters feel the most important issue facing their communities is). It is telling that this issue does not even make the CCI’s top ten.
The CCI is a valuable tool, and the Adfero Group and Fireside 21 don’t represent it as a measure of broad constituent sentiment. Instead, it has value insofar as it measures the “loudest voices.”
It is an excellent illustration of why elected officials can easily experience cognitive dissonance regarding the needs, wants and opinions of their constituents when they base their evaluation solely upon the feedback their offices receive in the form of phone calls, e-mails and letters.
Key takeaway? Just because an elected official or candidate knows what is top of mind to their voters or to those that contact their offices directly, they can’t assume that it equates to what the broader voting population they represent wants their elected representatives to focus on. It is the responsibility of our electeds to perform their due diligence as our representatives.
Probolsky Research is a full service opinion research organization, with government, corporate and political practice areas.