Iowa Poll: What is the top issue as likely voters consider their choices? Republicans, Democrats sharply split
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Though he’s retired, Ty Buras still worries about the country’s economy.
Buras, 51, of Burlington, believes the federal government should keep taxes low and restrictions on U.S. companies light. He approves of President Donald Trump’s policies, particularly the renegotiated trade agreements with Canada, China and Mexico.
Buras, a former Army sergeant, is concerned about what the country will look like in a couple of years, when his 16-year-old daughter is an adult.
“I just want to make sure that, when she’s getting ready for a job, that there are jobs out there and she does good,” he said.
The economy is the most important issue for 31% of likely Iowa voters — the highest percentage for any issue tested — as they think about how they will vote in the general election this fall for president and U.S. senator, according to a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll.
Following the economy as the issue viewed most important is law and order, 18%, the COVID-19 pandemic, 15%, and health care, 13%. The poll, conducted by Selzer & Co., surveyed 658 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
But the list changes if you break down the results by party identification.
Republican voters like Buras land the economy at the top of the list, with 49% saying it's their most important issue. Next for Republicans comes law and order, a signature issue for Trump, at 30%. Just 10% of Democratic voters name the economy as their most important issue, and just 4% say law and order.
Among Democratic voters, the largest share identify the COVID-19 pandemic as their most important issue among the eight suggested, at 30%, followed by health care, at 22%.
The Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has repeatedly criticized the Trump administration's response to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Just 1% of Republican voters say the pandemic is their top concern, and 7% say it's health care.
The themes emphasized by each candidate have translated into wide margins of support among voters who view that issue as the most important in making their choices this fall.
Among likely voters who say the economy is the most important issue (31% of the electorate), Trump leads 74% to 20%, or more than 3-to-1. The president holds an even greater advantage among those who say law and order is most important: 90% to 7%, a nearly 13-to-1 margin.
Among those who say COVID -19 is the most important issue (15% of the electorate), Biden has a huge margin, 91% to 5%, or 18-to-1.
"We typically do not see cleavages like this in polling data except for questions directly tied to party affiliation," said pollster J. Ann Selzer. "These data say issues are now a matter of allegiance — whether to party or to president."
With less than six weeks until Election Day, Biden and Trump are locked in a tie in Iowa at 47% each, according to the new poll.
Likely voters who identify as independents, coveted by each party as key to building a winning margin on Nov. 3, align more closely with Republicans on the issue they name as their most important (the economy, picked by 29% of independents), followed by law and order (picked by 17% of independents), which edges COVID-19 (at 16%).
The poll also found gender and income differences. While the economy is the most common top issue for likely voters of both genders, more men see it as their most important issue (38%) than do women (24%). Thirty-eight percent of likely voters earning $70,000 or more a year see the economy as their most important issue, compared to 20% earning less than $70,000.
Iowa’s economic performance under Trump has been mixed. The state’s unemployment rate dropped from 3.4% when he took office to 2.8% before the pandemic began, and median weekly wages increased from $886 to $936, keeping pace with inflation.
The state added 11,000 jobs from January 2017 to February 2020, a 0.75% increase. The manufacturing sector did better, adding 10,000 jobs, a 5% increase.
The pandemic has wiped out those gains. Overall, Iowa has lost 76,500 jobs since February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state’s unemployment rate reached 11% in April and remained at 6% in August, a rate that would be higher if 135,000 Iowans had not stopped looking for work and dropped out of the labor force since the pandemic started.
Ken Munro, 57, an Urbandale attorney and a Republican, thinks the state’s economy will bounce back after the pandemic. He believes strict tariffs on foreign countries will lead to more manufacturing jobs in Trump’s second term.
“We need to manufacture our own products, make things we need,” he said. “I’m talking about everything from Post-it Notes to medicine to cars.”
Law and order
While 18% of likely voters name law and order as their most important issue, groups with larger shares who choose that issue include Republicans, 30%; those who live in the 4th Congressional District, in northwestern and north-central Iowa, 25%; evangelicals and those who live in suburbs or small towns, 23% each; and those 55 and older, Protestants and white men with less than a college degree, 22% each.
It is the most important issue for just 4% of likely Democratic voters.
Jason Conant, 36, a Republican from Atlantic, ranks the issue first because he believes disingenuous protest organizers are attempting to trick the public into disliking Trump. Protests across the country this year have focused on the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police officers. But Conant said he believes concerns about police officers causing Black deaths are overblown.
“I think they’re really trying to make President Trump look bad so he won’t get re-elected,” he said. “And I kind of think it’s having the opposite effect.”
The coronavirus pandemic
Older adults are among groups at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Iowa voters who are 65 and older are more likely than those in other age groups to see the pandemic as their most important issue in making their choices this fall for president and senator.
Twenty percent of likely voters 65 and older name COVID-19 as their top issue, while 9% of those under 35 do.
Betty Seaba, 67, a Democrat from Wellman, is angry about Trump’s response to the pandemic because she believes the virus imperils her and her 70-year-old husband, Stanley. Seaba said she has high cholesterol. Her husband, a Vietnam veteran who delivers fertilizer to farmers and distributors, has suffered kidney cancer, prostate cancer and illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange during the war.
Seaba said she voted for Trump in 2016 but began to dislike him a year later when Republicans cut taxes, which she believes disproportionately benefited corporations and the wealthy. She decided to vote against Trump in the early months of the pandemic and was especially upset to hear him tell journalist Bob Woodward in a recorded interview that he intentionally downplayed the virus’s threat to avoid panicking Americans.
At the beginning of the year, she said, Trump should have fully banned travel from other countries and paid factories to make ventilators, masks and face shields.
“Common sense told you it was a pandemic,” she said. “And he did nothing.”
Health care, which is the most important issue for 13% of likely voters, resonates as a top issue more frequently with Democrats and with voters under 35, both at 22%.
Kathryn Davis, 32, a Democrat from Iowa City, said the issue became more important for her as the coronavirus spread. The wave of unemployment in the wake of the pandemic left 27 million Americans without private health insurance, according to a May 13 estimate by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Davis is not sure which policy response would be best, but she believes more people need access to affordable insurance.
Democrats running for office this year are "just the best possible alternatives at this point,” she said. “The way that Trump, (Republican Gov. Kim) Reynolds and (Republican U.S. Sen. Joni) Ernst are all on the same wavelength of not doing anything helpful for people around here, it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better.”
About this poll
The Iowa Poll, conducted September 14-17 for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, is based on telephone interviews with 803 Iowans ages 18 or older. Interviewers with Quantel Research contacted households with randomly selected landline and cellphone numbers supplied by Dynata. Interviews were administered in English. Responses were adjusted by age, sex and congressional district to reflect the general population based on recent American Community Survey estimates.
Questions based on the sample of 803 Iowa adults have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, and questions based on the sample of 658 likely voters in the 2020 general election have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points. This means that if this survey were repeated using the same questions and the same methodology, 19 times out of 20, the findings would not vary from the true population value by more than plus or minus 3.5 or 3.8 percentage points, respectively. Results based on smaller samples of respondents — such as by gender or age — have a larger margin of error.
Republishing the copyright Iowa Poll without credit to the Des Moines Register and Mediacom is prohibited.