Iowa Poll: Social Issues Not a Top Priority for Either Party

Likely Republican and Democratic caucus-goers have different priorities for what candidates should talk about in the state that hosts the first nomination balloting.


Demonstrators hold signs against the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement outside an event where Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at a small business roundtable in Cedar Falls, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, May 19, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

As they campaign through Iowa in the months leading up to the nation's first nominating contest, many presidential hopefuls are likely to talk about issues that are deeply important to the state's social conservatives, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

While those subjects are indeed significant to core groups, the latest Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll shows that likely Republican and Democratic caucus participants want the candidates to discuss a far more diverse array of issues, even if they don't agree on what those issues should be.  

Read the poll questions and methodology here.

Likely Republican caucus-goers are most likely to say they want candidates to discuss the budget deficit (94 percent), national defense (93 percent), taxes (91 percent), and battling terrorist groups (90 percent).

Presented with the same list of 20 issues, the top picks for Democrats are energy (92 percent), income inequality (90 percent), and the nation's infrastructure (88 percent).

There was some common ground: At 86 percent, Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to select job creation as something they want to hear candidates discuss extensively.

“The issues Iowans care about are the leading national issues,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of West Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll May 25-29. 

The survey, coming about eight months before the Iowa caucuses, included 402 likely Republican caucus-goers and 437 likely Democratic caucus participants. On the full sample, it has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points for Republicans and 4.7 percentage points for Democrats.

“For Republicans, fiscal issues like the budget, taxes, and job creation are key, as are security issues like defense and protecting against terrorists,” Selzer said. “For Democrats, it is economic issues, like income inequality, addressing infrastructure, and job creation.”

Just 38 percent of likely Republican caucus participants want candidates to spend a lot of time talking about same-sex marriage, while 48 percent say that for abortion. For Democrats, the number on same-sex marriage, which is legal in Iowa, is 45 percent; on abortion, it is 29 percent.

“I don't think they are really presidential issues or issues that a president is going to have to deal with,” said Republican poll participant Tony Schubert, 61, a mortgage banker from Cedar Rapids who wants to see candidates give more attention to eliminating regulations, lowering taxes, fixing Social Security, and reducing the clout of big business. “To make a big debate about social issues is missing the point of what the country's real problems are.”

The likely caucus-goers most interested in abortion are Republicans who consider themselves very conservative and those who call themselves born-again Christians. Roughly two-thirds of both groups want candidates to spend a lot of time on the subject.

Born-again or evangelical Christians represented 41 percent of likely Republican caucus participants in the poll, while those who consider themselves very conservative accounted for 35 percent. There is overlap between those two groups. 

For Republican candidates, ignoring climate change is a safe bet. Just 18 percent of likely GOP caucus participants want candidates to spend a lot of time on that subject. Democrats, at 81 percent, have an almost exactly opposite view.

A similar pattern sets up for income inequality, with just 36 percent of Republicans saying it should be a major topic for discussion, compared to 90 percent for Democrats.

While their opinions on the issue may vary, members of both parties agreed that they want to hear the candidates talk about immigration, 85 percent for Republicans and 82 percent for Democrats.

Other topics where at least half of Republicans said they want more conversation: international trade (81 percent), the nation's infrastructure (78 percent), energy (76 percent), breaking gridlock in Washington (68 percent), the Iraq war (63 percent), guns (57 percent), criminal justice reform (56 percent), and the cost of college (50 percent).

Democrats in the poll were interested in a much broader portfolio. Other topics where more than half want lots of discussion include: the cost of college (82 percent), taxes (78 percent), international trade (77 percent), national defense (76 percent), criminal justice reform (76 percent), breaking gridlock in Washington (75 percent), the budget deficit (74 percent), battling terrorist groups (71 percent), race relations (71 percent), guns (56 percent), and the Iraq war (54 percent).

By contrast, Democrats don't want to hear candidates talking about their religious beliefs, with just 14 percent of likely caucus-goers saying they wanted to hear a lot about them.

The poll also measured several policy positions on the Republican side to see if likely caucus-goers thought they were they were about right or go too far. The responses revealed some big differences within the Republican Party between moderates and conservatives.

Underscoring the skepticism that many Iowa Republicans feel toward former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, 74 percent of likely caucus participants agreed with this statement: “The Common Core puts too much control of education in the hands of the federal government; it should be rejected.” Bush is a supporter of national educational standards.

There also was division on two environmental statements tested among likely Republican caucus participants.

“The Environmental Protection Agency infringes on the rights of landowners, therefore it should be shut down” is viewed as going too far by 51 percent, while 44 percent say it's about right. Among those who consider themselves very conservative, 61 percent agreed with the statement, compared to 31 percent of moderates.

And there was a nearly even split among all Republicans on whether “subsidies are a waste of government money, including past subsidies for ethanol and wind energy,” with 46 percent saying that goes too far and 45 percent saying that's about right. That helps explain why Republican presidential candidates visiting the state often struggle to hit the right tone between supporting corn-based ethanol and the limited-government views many of them hold. 

Republicans were also somewhat divided on the question of whether “protecting Americans from terrorism is more important than protecting Americans' privacy.” A near majority, 49 percent, said the statement is about right, while 42 percent say that goes too far.

On immigration, 69 percent agreed with the statement “The border with Mexico must be 100 percent secure before any legislation on immigration reform can be considered.” Yet there's significant division within the party: 83 percent of those who consider themselves very conservative agreed with the statement, compared to just over half of self-described moderates.

Slimmer majorities agreed with a series of statements involving marriage and religious freedom.

“Clergy should be free to take political positions from the pulpit without risking the tax-exempt status of the church” is viewed as about right by 61 percent, while 60 percent agreed with the statement “Marriage should be only between one man and one woman, therefore marriage equality laws should be struck down.”

“Religious freedom is so important, it takes precedence over any law that is seen as interfering with it” is viewed by 57 percent as about right.

“Life begins at conception, therefore fetuses have all the same rights as persons” is viewed as about right by 74 percent.

There's also strong support, 73 percent, among likely Republican caucus participants for this statement: “The U.S. must have the indisputably strongest military, therefore the Pentagon budget should be increased.”

Nearly eight out of 10 likely Republican caucus participants said the statement “Obamacare should be repealed” is about right, helping explain why such lines from Republican candidates on the campaign trail almost always generate applause.

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