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Education Opinion

Are Voters Thinking About Education This Year?

By Rick Hess — January 19, 2016 3 min read
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Education has been largely absent during this year’s presidential contest. On the one hand, after the Bush and Obama presidencies, many of us regard that as something of a relief. On the other hand, it does mark a noteworthy break with recent history, as I observed last week in U.S. News.

Despite sporadic Democratic paeans to free college and pre-K and occasional Republican denunciations of the Common Core and philosophy degrees, it seems education has occupied only a very modest place so far in this election year. But is that impression accurate?

It’s fairly easy to gauge. Every month in 2015, Gallup asked respondents, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” The same question was asked five times by New York Times/CBS and four times by CBS. The online database of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, the national polling repository, reports that these were the only national pollsters to have asked this question multiple times in 2015. (Big thanks to my RA Kelsey Hamilton for her help with all this.) Figure 1 reports the results of these 21 polls.

Source: Gallup Polls (January - December 2015), The New York Times/CBS News Poll (December 4-8, 2015), CBS News Polls (January, February, August and November 2015).

Of the 21 polls that asked about the nation’s most important problem, the high point for education (including K-12, higher education, and pre-K) came last February when 7% of respondents deemed it the nation’s most important problem. That was the high point. Overall, in just six of the 21 surveys did even 5% of respondents name education as the nation’s top problem.

Readers will note that not only has education not drawn much attention this cycle, but the modest number of voters mentioning it has gradually inched downward. From January through June, 4.4% of respondents, on average, said education was the nation’s most important problem. From July through December, the comparable figure was 3%.

But how low are those numbers, really? How do they stack up against the number of voters naming other issues as the nation’s problem? One easy way to examine that is to see where education ranks relative to other issues when respondents are asked about the nation’s most important problem. Figure 2 reports the results.

In Figure 2, we see that education finished as high as fifth in early 2015. Since May, however, it’s been seventh or lower in 14 of 15 polls. Of the eight polls conducted from September onward, it ranked tenth or lower five times.

If not education, what other issues are attracting attention? In December, Gallup’s top four (in order) were terrorism, dissatisfaction with government, the economy, and guns. In November, they were economy, dissatisfaction with government, immigration and illegal aliens, and unemployment/jobs. Those kinds of responses are pretty consistent across the three polls and over time.

Why is education not drawing much attention? Two big forces are at work.

One is that, for most people, education isn’t as urgent a concern as national security and the economy. At times like these, when headlines are filled with stories of terrorism and stagnant wages, education faces a stiff headwind.

A second is that education has generally been how conservatives show themselves to be compassionate and how liberals show they’re practical and responsible. This election, candidates face intense pressure on the left and the right to demonstrate that they’re ideologically reliable—and education is less helpful on that count.

Going back to 1992, our last three presidents all made their thinking on education an integral part of their persona. They did this well before the first primary ballots were cast. Each used education in symbolically potent ways. For George W. Bush, it was a way to demonstrate a real commitment to equal opportunity. For Clinton and Obama, it was a way to talk about new public spending in terms of investment and personal responsibility, and to distinguish it from old-style tax-and-spend liberalism. It’s pretty clear that’s not going to be the case this time around—and that may say as much about the public and what it wants as it does about the candidates and their agendas.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.