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Which issues topped Americans’ minds as they voted?

Survey also indicates how these issues may have affected their choice for president
Early voters in masks. Credit: Maria Konosky iStock

As Election Day votes are cast and mail-in ballots are processed, a survey of more than 20,000 American voters on the most important problems facing the U.S. finds their top answers, including the coronavirus at No. 1 overall, align more with issues that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has focused on during his campaign.

COVID-19 was cited as the top issue for nearly one-third of respondents nationally, and topped the list for voters in every state except for Alaska, where 16% of respondents chose climate change instead. Other first-picks mentioned were racism (10% ranked it first), the economy (8%), healthcare (7%) and crime and violence (6%).

In examining how the presidential candidates’ platforms align with voters’ top concerns, the researchers found that respondents overall ranked issues championed by Biden; No. 1 (COVID-19), No. 2 (racism), and No. 4 (healthcare). President Donald Trump’s top campaign issues were ranked No. 3 (the economy) and No. 5 (crime and violence).

“This shows the central role of the last six months — with the pandemic and racial inequities being front and center in voters’ minds,” said James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR associate director and fellow at Northwestern University.

Druckman is part of a university consortium between Northwestern, Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers that has been conducting “The State of the Nation: A 50-State COVID-19 Survey.” For these survey questions, the researchers combined the September survey responses from more than 20,000 individuals across all 50 states with more than 3,600 collected from battleground states in October.

Top issues state-by-state

When breaking down voters’ views by state, however, the researchers point to significant differences in what respondents named as the most important problem after COVID-19. Majorities in 43 out of 50 states named the following three: racism in 17 states, crime and violence in 18 states, and healthcare in 8 states.

In the 10 battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the survey reveals a couple of key shifts in topics and more about voters’ preferences for presidential candidates:

  • In comparing results between the September and October waves of the survey, the researchers find the second-cited problem after COVID-19 shifts to issues favoring Trump in two key states. In September, 9% of Wisconsinites and 10% of Floridians cited racism as the top problem, and by October, majorities in both states had changed to the economy at 10%.
  • Among those who list racism as the second problem after COVID-19, more than four out of five people say they intend to vote for Biden.
  • Among those who rank crime and violence as the No. 2 problem, two out of three say they intend to vote for Trump.

The researchers also show clear partisan, age and racial/ethnic differences:

  • Democrats and independents include racism, climate change and healthcare in their most frequently mentioned problems. Republicans, too, cite healthcare in their top five, but also crime and violence, abortion and the economy.
  • Blacks are far more likely than other racial or ethnic groups to name racism and police brutality as the top problem for the country.
  • White respondents are most likely to name the economy or healthcare as their No. 2 problem after COVID-19, but Black respondents are more likely to choose racism.
  • In 8 out of the 10 battleground states, voters under 30 are most likely to name racism as the nation’s most important problem. While in the other two states, the young voters chose climate change. Older voters are more likely to prioritize the economy or healthcare.
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