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Opinion: Issues Matter in Elections Even More Than You’d Think

Both parties need to recognize that the electorate has a clear set of priorities

A street car passes a voting station along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans during the Louisiana Republican primary in March 2012. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images file photo)
A street car passes a voting station along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans during the Louisiana Republican primary in March 2012. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images file photo)

Deciphering what happened in the 2016 election has become a predictable exercise in misinformation for too many people seeking either exoneration or vindication — neither a good pretext for objective analysis. A lot of people got the election wrong before Nov. 8, and even more since.

For most people, the election wasn’t about the Russians or Clinton’s emails. It wasn’t that voters were uneducated or didn’t understand the issues. Quite the opposite. Issues, not party or demographics, drove the 2016 vote.

In last year’s election, people were looking for something radically different to change their economic situations. After years of economic stagnation, voters were frustrated with the status quo to which Mrs. Clinton was inextricably tied. When both political parties chose two candidates the majority of the country viewed unfavorably, voters’ frustration, in the end, led them to choose the candidate they believed would deliver real change. According to the exit polls, that was not Hillary Clinton.

This was a campaign, however, that shattered conventional wisdom on many levels. One in five voters disliked both candidates and made their decision very late in the cycle. The winner of the electoral vote lost the popular vote. The Rust Belt provided the margin of victory for the Republican candidate, a feat not seen since Ronald Reagan swamped Walter Mondale in 1984.

All of this took place in a media environment that focused on Twitter feeds, emails, hackers and coarsening political discourse on both sides. From the electorate’s perspective, almost everyone was focused on everything but what they wanted to talk about — the economy.

Although economic issues determined the outcome of this election, most political analysis since has looked through the traditional lens of demographic attributes — how did age, sex, race, education and the like impact the vote? But this kind of analysis can be misleading because demographic groups, with a few exceptions, don’t exhibit monolithic behavior. Clinton won the women’s vote, for example, but 46 percent of women voted for someone else. She also won college graduates, but 48 percent voted for another candidate. Trump won men, but 48 percent voted for another candidate.

After the election, traditional analyses gave us information, but what we need is insight. Working with the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, I undertook a different kind of analysis — one that enabled us to look at voter behavior by issue priorities rather than through the conventional demographic variables. My analysis is based on data from an 8,000-sample YouGov study looking at voter behavior from differing perspectives and provided to a number of analysts on both sides of the aisle.

The size of this study gave all of us an opportunity to test voter behavior theories on a new scale. I believe we found that the mix of voters’ issue priorities revealed more about their decision-making than traditional demography could.

In the survey, voters were given 23 issues to rank in terms of which influenced their vote in the election. The issues included the economy, health care, social issues, terrorism, climate change and more. Voters ranked the economy, health care, jobs and Social Security as their top four. Issues such as climate change and gender and racial injustice, which reflected much of the media coverage, were not among the most important priority issues for most voters.

Looking at voters through this issue-based prism using cluster analysis revealed five distinct voter groups delineated by their aligned issue preferences: the Democrat/Independent liberal elites, who made up 15 percent of the electorate; the Democratic-leaning working class (the largest cluster at 25 percent); moderate younger middle-income voters (17 percent); conservative older voters (21 percent); and conservative younger voters (12 percent). These clusters demonstrated distinct presidential election voting patterns, party preferences and ideological patterns that help us better understand voters’ decision-making.

One of the most surprising findings from the cluster analysis was a significant issue divide between the Democrat/Independent liberal elites and Democratic-leaning working class. The data showed the division between the two Democratic groups was much bigger than the issue divide within the Republican Party. These two Democratic clusters are clearly split over how to prioritize the economy and jobs, and it played out to the party’s detriment in the last election.

Though many voters saw Trump as a risky choice, he ended up winning more voters who prioritized the top 10 issues, which included the economy, jobs, crime and terrorism. Clinton, on the other hand, won more issues overall, but many were the lesser priority issues like climate change, gender equality, family and medical leave, and gay rights. It is not that people viewed these issues as unimportant, but that other issues were seen as more of a priority.

This divide had particular impact in the Rust Belt states that carried Trump to victory. Out of 23 issues, Clinton voters in the Rust Belt ranked the economy fifth and jobs seventh. In contrast, Trump voters ranked the economy first and jobs third, which is where Rust Belt voters overall ranked the economy and jobs. Even more telling, the way Democratic-leaning working class voters ranked the issues put them closer to the views of Trump voters than Clinton voters.

So what does this analysis show really happened in 2016? Trump won the issues that mattered.

In the future, both political parties need to recognize that the electorate has a clear set of priorities. Issues matter — and going forward, they may matter much more than demographics.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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