By RENEE FOX
When people make decisions in their everyday lives, they seldom analyze their choices by running through a checklist of who they are – age, race, income, level of education or where they live.
But that checklist is important, especially now, in an unusually tense presidential election as Ohioans try to understand how others think and as politicians and campaigns try to manipulate minds.
A recent Ohio poll conducted by the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron suggests that there is a great deal of agreement on the issues most important to improving life – COVID-19, the economy, health care, racial equity, income inequality. But those differences in demography – gender, age, education, religion and more – play a role in how those issues are prioritized.
John Green, emeritus director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute and designer of the poll, said polling can help people better appreciate diverse life experiences.
“I hope people can place themselves in these polls, and understand people with different backgrounds see things differently, because their experience differs. We don’t have to all agree on everything, but we can show some understanding,” Green said. “That is why this type of story is important: It can help people see the big picture, to see that they do belong in one of these groups and gauge if how they feel about something may be influenced by one of these factors.”
“Say, for example, I am an old white man and I think the economy and jobs are most important, but I understand how women — my wife, daughter or sister — may see things differently because the experience of women is different. I hope people can locate themselves and say: ‘This is where I fit in and why I might think this way’.”
Voters should also pressure their political candidates to deliver solid information about the issues that matter most to them, to see whether their policy ideas will have a meaningful impact if elected, Green said.
“It’s no surprise, COVID ranks No. 1,” Green said, referring to recent data from a statewide poll. “When you go across demographic groups, there are changes but COVID is always near the top.”
The data was collected from a random sample of 1,037 registered voters in Ohio who were polled by the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research in a joint project of Your Voice Ohio and the Bliss Institute. The survey was administered between June 24 and July 15 online; the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In addition to using polling to guide election coverage, Your Voice Ohio journalists are participating in online dialogues with Ohioans throughout the state to discuss how those issues affect individuals and communities. The participants were granted anonymity.
In the first round of dialogues in July, journalists listened as participants drove the conversation to one topic: COVID-19, because of the ways it had impacted their lives – health, family, food, jobs and the ability to vote. Almost everyone had a story to tell and continually brought the discussion back to the pandemic.
In the YVO poll, respondents were asked two different ways to identify the most important issues for them today. In one question, they were asked to rank 16 issues in order of importance; the largest percentage of respondents selected COVID-19.
The economy and healthcare came in next, followed by sustainable income and racism.
Access to adequate food, education, criminal justice and housing were mid-level concerns.
At the lower end of spectrum, the respondents named mental health, international peace and security, environmental protections, infrastructure, public services, drug addiction and immigration reform.
The poll indicated that no matter how important a voter ranked an issue, they still want to hear more information from the presidential candidates about the issues.
The other method of gauging the respondents’ thoughts on the most important issue used an open-ended response form, rather than asking them to rank named issues.
They were asked, ‘To you personally, what is the most important issue facing the country right now?”
Nearly a third of respondents selected the pandemic, 32.4 percent. But 20 percent of respondents said the most important issue is problems with the political process. Many blamed the process itself or President Donald Trump as the problem.
While nearly 9 percent of all respondents named Trump directly as the most important issue, less than 3 percent named Democrats, liberals or presidential candidate Joe Biden. And among “strong Trump supporters,” 8.9 percent said Democrats or liberals are the country’s biggest problem, while 22 percent of “strong Biden supporters” named Trump as the biggest problem.
Nineteen percent said public order problems such as race relations, unrest and crime are the most important issue; 16.6 percent said the economy is the most important issue; 9.6 percent found domestic issues such as healthcare are the most important; and just 2 percent named foreign policy problems — such as immigration — as the most important issue.
Green said he was most surprised about how immigration ranked so low in the poll, especially after it was a big issue in 2016, and that racial unrest and inequality weren’t ranked higher, though that may have changed in the weeks since the poll.
“COVID seems to have displaced some of these concerns,” Green said.
“This data is about priorities, not about the attitudes about what to do about the issues. Two could say COVID is their priority, but have different ideas about how to fix it,” Green said. “It is important to remember people are looking at the issues through different lenses. Some see COVID as a standalone issue, while others might look at it through the lens of the economic impact, or from a healthcare perspective.”
Undecided voters and Biden supporters selected COVID-19 as the most important problem facing the country, by far. Trump supporters also tended to name the pandemic as the No. 1 problem, but the economy came in a close second.
The differences between men and women were small in the poll: men gave slightly less priority to income inequality and racism than women did. But both sexes indicated COVID-19 and the economy are the two most important issues. People who identified as “other” for gender identity emphasized income, the economy and healthcare over racism and COVID-19 as their most important issue.
White people ranked economy and healthcare above racism, and black people ranked COVID-19 and racism higher than the economy, healthcare and income inequality.
Married people as a group are more likely to be concerned about the economy and healthcare, over racism. Single people ranked racism higher than the state average, and the economy, healthcare or income inequality less than the state average.
Younger people, who tend to be less likely to die of COVID-19, ranked racism higher than the state average but COVID-19 lower than the state average. People over 45, who may have more health issues, gave more importance to COVID-19 than the state overall. They also cared more about healthcare and the economy in comparison with the state over all, and cared less about racism.
The most-educated people cared more about the economy, and the least educated gave less of a priority to the economy and healthcare. The most educated people prioritized COVID-19 more than the average.
Income level moderately affected people’s positions. Less affluent people put less emphasis on COVID-19, healthcare and the economy, and more on income inequality and racism. The most affluent cared more than the average about the economy and less than average about income inequality.
“”These demographic patterns may reflect the interests of the haves versus the have nots, with the former seeking to maintain their advantages and the latter wanting to reduce their disadvantages. But the patterns may also reflect a sense that a strong economic recovery will help everyone in the short run by restoring jobs and services, especially to the disadvantaged,” Green said.
In one of the Your Voice Ohio dialogues, a Dayton woman said she wants a president who is more than a Democrat or Republican, who will create “common sense” policies that don’t leave people who work full time in poverty, vulnerable to food insecurity and unable to take care of their healthcare.
“What are the federal laws that allow employers to pay slave wages? Who are the stockholders who allow such policies to continue?” the woman asked.
White evangelical and non-minority Protestants cared more about the economy than COVID-19, and ranked racism below the state average.
White Christians as a whole are less likely than the rest of the state to rank racism as highly important.
Minorities in religious groups care more about COVID-19, racism and healthcare.
People without a specific religion and secularists such as atheists and agnostics had views in line with the rest of the state’s averages.
White Catholics cared more than the state average about COVID-19, the economy and healthcare.
REGIONS OF OHIO
Ohioans from the northeast and northwest part of the state named the economy as the most important issue, with COVID-19 and healthcare coming in second and third. Foreign policy was the fourth-most named priority in northeast Ohio, while access to food was in northwest Ohio.
Central, southeast and southwest Ohioans named COVID-19 as the most important issue, the economy as the second and healthcare as the third. Central Ohioans said racism came in fourth, southeastern Ohioans named income, criminal justice and addiction as the next most important issues, while southwest Ohioans named racism and criminal justice as the next-most important issues.
A Columbus-area man said it is “frustrating” trying to balance economy and safety in the context of COVID-19. An Akron-area retiree said after listening to others in the dialogue that she initially cared more about jobs, but had changed her thinking: “I was focusing so much on the pandemic, my priority now is listening to what is happening to us with the economy, and the effect on the working mom and the children.”
All polls are “snapshots of a certain period of time,” Green said, and so the results, if taken again today, may be different. But the differences regionally in the state could be explained by how the pandemic spread through Ohio, Green said.
“COVID-19 came to the northeast and northwest part of the state earlier,” Green said. “This has to do with patterns of travel. A lot of commerce is east to west, not north to south, so Cleveland and Toledo are more connected to New York and Boston, while Cincinnati is more connected to southern, eastern cities like Baltimore. The pandemic spread east to west, so it took more time to move into the southern parts of the state.”
Also, there are different segments of Ohio culture, Green said. Rural and urban areas may have reacted to the mask and social distancing guidelines differently, varying depending on the outbreaks in their immediate communities at the time.
“Different communities react differently,” Green said.
Renee Fox is a reporter at the Warren Tribune Chronicle. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to volunteer for a future dialogue and receive $125 for two hours? Register at the Your Voice Ohio Election 2020 website.
About this project: This is one in a series of stories on issues Ohioans say are most important in this election year. More than 50 news outlets are collaborating in the project under the umbrella of Your Voice Ohio, the nation’s largest sustained, statewide news media collaborative. In five years, Your Voice Ohio has brought more than 100 journalists together with more than 1,300 Ohioans for discussions on addiction, the economy and elections. The project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and Facebook. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes designs and facilitates the dialogues. Retired Akron Beacon Journal managing editor Doug Oplinger directs the media work and can be reached at email@example.com.