- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

Americans continue to call for Congress to address a broad set of policy topics. In our latest national poll asking voters to choose “the single most important issue for Congress to address this year,” five issues garnered double-digit support: Iraq (16 percent), terrorism (13 percent), immigration (12 percent), the economy (11 percent) and health care (10 percent). This national poll of 800 registered voters was conducted from September 19 to 24, 2006.

By itself, voters’ selecting this particular set of subjects is unremarkable. We read and hear about their importance on a daily basis. Looking behind the numbers, however, some striking differences between Republicans and Democrats emerge — variations that suggest who voters listen to strongly affects their ranking of issues.

Partisan messages they hear from Washington shape the specific issues they want lawmakers to address. For example, more than three times as many Republicans (23 percent) compared to Democrats (7 percent) say terrorism and homeland security is the most important issue for Congress to address. On the other hand, Democrats rank the war in Iraq as the most important issue for Congress to address (24 percent), while only 8 percent of Republicans rank it the top priority. These partisan differences also emerge on the issue of immigration. It ranks second highest among Republicans (19 percent), just below terrorism and homeland security. Yet among Democrats, the immigration issue barely registers, garnering only 4 percent who say it’s the most important issue for Congress to address.

Two observations follow from these numbers. First, they help explain why Democrats in Congress seem immune from consequences for not helping pass any kind of immigration legislation. Democratic voters do not rank the issue high on their list of priorities, so their representatives in Congress probably have a free pass to take just about any position — including merely opposing Republicans — without fear of any constituent retribution.

Second, voter opinion about what should rank high on the congressional agenda varies a great deal based on what partisan leaders in Washington discuss, as well as how the media covers events. For example, Republicans in Washington, including President Bush, have discussed immigration and terrorism a great deal over the past several months. So it’s not surprising that Republican identifiers — who listen most closely to GOP leaders in Washington — put these two issues at the top of their list.

Democratic leaders spent more time talking about the economy, health care, and the war in Iraq (especially criticizing Republican policies in these areas). Hence it’s no surprise that party’s rank and file believes these issues deserve top billing on the congressional agenda.

Self-identified partisan voters closely reflect the views they hear from their leaders in Washington. And as long as political elites continue to “prime these partisan pumps” — as some social scientists call it — deep divisions over the preferred congressional agenda will likely continue.

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