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Seven Little Words: The Question That Determines a Vote

We’ve all seen the ads on Sunday mornings — a 70-something woman who looks like everyone’s grandmother peers into the camera and pointedly tells Congress, “Don’t you come home without passing a prescription drug bill.” She’s quickly followed by an elderly man who chimes in, “Yeah, when are you gonna get it done?” [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s an effective issue ad for one side of the prescription drug war raging on Capitol Hill at the moment, but the tone of the ad is instructive in a broader, more generic political sense. One of the reasons this ad works is because the central subject of the ad — prescription drug coverage — is an issue of deep concern to millions of Americans. But it also captures, in seven little words, the crux of next year’s congressional elections — when are you gonna get it done?

So Congress in the next two weeks needs to focus its efforts first on issues that matter to voters and second on getting the job done. The first task is harder than it seems. All issues, even important issues, are not created equally.

Here’s what I mean: Turn on the network news and you’re just as likely to see a report on the environment as on education — in fact, you’re more likely to see an environmental story. Over the past few years, untold hours of network news time have been devoted to issues such as energy, the environment, campaign finance, abortion and gay rights. Most of these are crucial issues to certain voters and create contentious, emotional television, but, on the whole, these are not issues on which most people base their votes.

When campaign finance reform was on the forefront, it was all over the television and print media. Yet, it wasn’t the top issue — or for that matter even in the top 10 most important issues to voters. At that time, education was the top issue among voters, even though media coverage was almost nonexistent.

The five top issues that Americans are likely to have on their minds in the voting booth next year are (a) economy/jobs, (b) the situation in Iraq, (c) education, (d) health care/prescription drugs, and (e) Social Security/retirement.

These issues matter more because there is a larger value behind them, an emotional component that connects with voters in ways other issues, important though they may be, don’t. Without this connection, voters may be mildly aware of an issue, maybe even concerned about it, but they are not motivated by it. Take abortion. While there is a group of voters on each side of the issue whose vote is driven solely by a candidate’s abortion position, for most people, according to national surveys, prescription drugs and access to quality health care for themselves and their families are far more important health issues.

Likewise, no one would argue that developing a comprehensive energy policy isn’t in the country’s long-term interest. But people are more worried about getting a paycheck tomorrow. When they see friends laid off, they worry about their own job and their family’s financial stability. Value-based issues matter more because people see them through a personal prism.

As voters make decisions between two candidates, their thought process isn’t to rationally weigh the candidates’ positions on every issue before the Congress or, on specific issues, consider what the legislative alternatives may or may not have been as the legislative process evolved. Instead, they are going to judge candidates on the issues that matter to them in a very personal way — has my life gotten better or will it get better because of what Congress has done? Did they solve any of the problems that I face?

Nor will most voters judge the record of the 108th Congress on the sheer number of legislative initiatives cranked out. Ultimately, voters want progress on issues that directly impact their lives, and they want action on those concerns now.

Trying to bring together 535 different points of view, however, isn’t an easy task. The House-Senate conference committee’s struggle to reach a prescription drug bill that will pass Congress is a perfect example. According to the New Models September survey, by a significant margin, Americans want Congress to pass a prescription drug bill that will provide more seniors with more access to prescription drugs as opposed to doing nothing. They don’t expect perfection from Congress on this issue, but they do expect progress.

That’s why in 2002, without action on a final prescription drug bill, voters fired Democrats in the Senate and Republicans regained the majority. In 2004, the Democrats risk a similar public backlash if voters perceive them as skunks at the garden party — blocking action on this crucial issue and others. The first evidence of whether Democrats have learned the lesson of the 2000 election will be seen this week when Senate Republicans call their filibuster bluff on judges exposing the Democrats’ delay and obstructionist strategy that threatens not just the confirmation of judicial appointments but legislative progress on key issues such as prescription drugs.

With Congress’ self-imposed deadline of Nov. 21 just around the corner, its focus has to be on finding and passing solutions that address voters’ priorities — the issues that matter most to them.

“When are you gonna get it done?” Answering that question has to be Congress’ No. 1 priority.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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