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Immigration, terrorism, and foreign policy rise among Americans' top voting issues

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Immigration, terrorism, and foreign policy rise among Americans' top voting issues

President Obama’s favorability ratings remain low, although higher than last year.

Cruz, Clinton, Paul, and Rubio are in. Bush, Walker, Christie, Perry, and a whole lot of others are "maybes," while Romney and Warren have RSVP'd "no." The 2016 presidential election is a year and a half away, and even the Iowa caucuses – the kickoff to 2016's presidential primary season – are more than eight months off. That hasn't stopped more than a few politicians from throwing their respective hats into the ring. But which issues are most likely to move the needle on public perceptions of those vying for spots on their parties' tickets? And how has the "voting issues" lineup changed?

When asked by Harris Poll which two to three issues, from a provided list, are most important in making decisions between candidates, the economy is among the top issues for a majority of Americans (56%) – though it's worth noting that this majority has dwindled since last year (when 61% selected the economy). Healthcare is the second strongest factor, with two in five U.S. adults selecting it (39%).

 "The economy is among the top issues for a majority of Americans (56%)."

Roughly one-fourth each select jobs (27%, down substantially from 39% last year), taxes (26%), social security (25%), education (24%) and immigration (23%, up notably from 15% in 2014).

Selections have also increased from last year for terrorism (20%, up from 13%) and foreign policy (17%, up from 9%). Just over one in ten select the environment as a top voting issue (13%, down slightly from 16%) and under one in ten each select LGBT rights/equality and abortion (8% and 7%, respectively).

Political differences

Some distinct divisions in voting issue priorities emerge along political party lines:

  • Democrats are more likely than Republicans and Independents to place healthcare (49% vs. 31% and 37%), social security (33% vs. 19% and 24%) and the environment (20% vs. 3% and 12%) as their top considerations when choosing between candidates.
  • Republicans are more likely to say immigration (35% vs. 13% Dem and 25% Ind), terrorism (30% vs. 13% and 18%) and foreign policy (25% vs. 12% and 16%) are among their top priorities.
  • Independents' responses sometimes align with those of Democrats, sometimes with Republicans. Independents (28%) and Republicans (33%) are both much more likely than Democrats (16%) to call out taxes as a top voting issue; in contrast, Independents (26%) and Democrats (29%) are more aligned on education's place among their top voting issues, with Republicans far less likely to select it (14%).

Regional differences

Looking at region, Easterners (64%) are more likely than those in the Midwest (50%), South (56%) and West (55%) to say that the economy is one of the most important issues for them when it comes to making voting decisions. Midwestern and Southern Americans (25% and 27%) are more likely than their counterparts in the East (17%) to select education as a top voting issue, while abortion strikes a stronger chord in the Midwest (with 11% selecting it as a top voting issue) than in any other region (5% East, 7% South, 5% West).

Generational differences

  • Younger generations are more likely to focus on jobs (33% Millennials and 37% Gen Xers vs. 20% Baby Boomers and 13% Matures), education (41% vs. 20%, 11% and 14%) and LGBT rights/equality (17% vs. 5%, 3% and 3%).
  • Older generations, meanwhile, show a stronger focus on social security (47% Matures and 38% baby Boomers vs. 19% Gen Xers and 9% Millennials), immigration (37% vs. 25%, 23% and 16%) and terrorism (28%, 24% and 22% vs. 12%).
  • The importance of taxes as a voting issue, meanwhile, peaks among Gen Xers at 34% (vs. 23% of Millennials, 26% of Baby Boomers and 18% of Matures).

But what about the President we've got right now?

Of course, our next president – whoever that might be – is a long way off. In the meantime, how do Americans feel President Obama is stacking up? Looking at overall ratings for the job he's doing, the President's positive ratings are at 38% – roughly even with last month's 37%, but up from 33% in April of last year.

Positive ratings for his handling of the economy follow similar trends. Thirty-eight percent of Americans rate President Obama positively on his performance in this area, identical to last month (also 38%) but up from a year ago (when 32% indicated the same).

  • Seven in ten Democrats give the President positive ratings on both his overall job performance (71%) and his performance in relation to the economy (69%), while roughly nine in ten Republicans give the President negative ratings on both these points (93% and 87%, respectively).
  • As for Independents, majorities give the President negative ratings on both his general performance and his handling of the economy (70% each).

Economic expectations

Looking ahead to the coming year, 26% of Americans expect the economy to improve in the coming year, with 24% expecting it to get worse and half (51%) expecting it to remain the same. This is comparable to a roughly a year ago – with an identical 26% anticipating improvement last May – but down some from the optimism seen this past January, when a third of Americans (32%) were expecting the economy to improve in the coming year.

  • Gen Xers are far less likely than their counterparts in other generations (15% vs. 29% Millennials, 29% Baby Boomers and 27% Matures) to expect the economy to improve in the coming year.

Turning to the home front, 23% expect their household's financial condition to improve in the next six months while 21% expect it to worsen and 56% expect it to remain the same. This is again on par with roughly a year ago (24% expected their household's financial condition last May) but down slightly from the beginning of this year (this same measure was at 27% in January).

  • Looking across regions, Americans in the West are more likely than those in any other region to expect that their own household's financial situation will improve in the next six months (31% vs. 20% East, 20% Midwest and 22% South). 
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