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Poll Points to Education as Key 2020 Issue, Especially for Democrats. But Hang On

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 15, 2020 3 min read
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New nationwide polling indicates that the public considers education to be a top issue in the 2020 presidential race—but maybe don’t lunge for any conclusions.

The Gallup polling results released Monday find that education was one of five issues rated as “extremely important” by adults, along with health care, terrorism and national security, gun policy, and the economy; 33 percent rated education as such, the fourth-highest percentage for any issues after health care, terrorism and national security, and gun policy. Another 50 percent of respondents rated it one step down, as “very important.”

And among all 16 issues in the Gallup poll, education had the second-highest combined share of people rating it as “extremely important” or “very important” at 83 percent, trailing only the economy, which clocked in at 84 percent.

Among Democrats, 43 percent called education “extremely important” compared to just 23 percent of Republicans.

The new Gallup poll was conducted from Dec. 2 to Dec. 15 last year, prior to major events in Iraq and Iran at the start of 2020, and surveyed 1,025 adults, with a majority interviewed on cell phones. Gallup, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, does not specify whether the adults were registered or likely voters.

Here’s how education stacks up as far as partisan splits for other issues:

If you step back a bit, there are some ways in which these relatively high rankings for education, and the Democratic-Republican divide in terms of its importance, make sense.

For example, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has put education policy and politics on the national radar like never before over the last three years. There’s good reason to think Democrats running for office this year—not just the presidency—will use DeVos as a “boogeywoman” in their campaigns.

It’s also notable that, by the slimmest of margins, education ranked as more likely to be very or extremely important to Republicans than health care.

We’re as happy as anyone in the education field when the public says education is a crucial issue in an election. But wait just a moment. The polling outfit notes that on average, 31 percent of Democrats in the new poll rated six issues Gallup has asked about since 2004 (not including education) as “extremely important,” compared to 27 percent of Republicans on average who say the same. Why might that be?

“Gallup has observed a similar pattern in recent election years, with more supporters of the party out of power rating most issues as important compared with supporters of the party currently occupying the White House,” Zach Hrynowski of Gallup wrote. In fact, Hrynowski goes on to say that this pattern is probably best expressed through results tied to issues not asked as consistently as others, such as education as well as gun policy.

So is that true? In January 2016 Gallup asked similar questions about the importance of various issues in the context of that year’s presidential contest. It might be smart not to make direct apples-to-apples comparisons between the early 2016 and late 2019 polls, but education was ranked as extremely or very important by 79 percent of adults, or four percentage points lower than a similar question from Gallup last month.

In that 2016 Gallup poll, 90 percent of Democrats and voters leaning Democrat rated education as very or extremely important. There doesn’t appear to be a combined figure for Democrats on education in the new poll results.

There’s another important caveat to this kind of polling. It’s one that comes up frequently in this arena: Gallup’s published results do not distinguish between K-12 education and higher education.

Perhaps it’s obvious, but that distinction is not a cosmetic one. Several candidates have made detailed (if not necessarily realistic) proposals for each of the two policy areas. And the role of relatively young voters in the 2020 election, many of whom might be thinking a lot more about their future college years and college debt than their past years in K-12 schools, will be a big political issue to watch.

Finally, there’s the matter of how you phrase these questions, and whether you ask candidates to prioritize one issue over another instead of simply identifying their importance. In a poll conducted by the political news website FiveThirtyEight in conjunction with Ipsos before and after last September’s Democratic presidential debate, just 2.5 percent of respondents before the debate, and 2.4 percent of them afterwards, ranked education as the most important issue.

That put education in tenth place among issues in the poll, which—important context dead ahead—surveyed likely Democratic primary voters. One issue that came in ahead of education? “Something else.” Really. See for yourself:

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