When cornered to make election predictions, pollsters often demur. We remind listeners that our polls are only snapshots of opinions at the time they are taken. Qualification and stipulations spill from our lips. Caveat emptor, we counsel those looking for clarity in our comprehension of future events. Nevertheless, people keep asking for soothsaying and fortunes told. A friend of mine mockingly refers to me as “The Oracle” before inquiring about my political outlook. I do my best. Pollsters can and should think and talk more about broader directions of public opinion up the road.
Right now is a good time to prognosticate on the issue agenda for 2012. We cannot be preparing our clients solely to fight the last war, the one singularly about jobs and the economy. By the time 2012 rolls around, the battlefield may have changed. The issue agenda as measured by polls may have broadened. Employment may increase. The electorate may simply tire of economic worries and broaden its interests. Other, competing issues may surge onto the scene. So if your clients are prepared principally to meet economic challenges, they may be found wanting. I’m not predicting that the economy won’t be the No. 1 issue in 2012, but I foresee with high probability that the issue agenda will flatten out as competing issues rise.
One of the most surprising developments of the 2010 election was the near-total collapse of the social issues: abortion, gay rights and secular humanism. There have been various explanations for this phenomenon. Perhaps the Christian right is just disorganized these days, incapable of systematically pushing its agenda. Conceivably, Christian activists are withdrawing from politics to focus on their faith lives. Or, heaven forbid, Christians are simply compromising on these issues as they seek a broader issue agenda, refocusing on green and humanitarian issues. Whatever the reason for 2010, expect that to change. One or more Republican candidates will boldly bid for the vote of the religious right and push these old-line issues back up the poll charts. The left will respond and, voila, we’ll have conflict. The social issues will be back in the news.
Healthcare, specifically ObamaCare and its repeal, will also surge in the polls going into 2012. Any pollster with a pulse these days feels the scorching heat generated by this topic. If candidates wanted to stage a throwback, torch-lit parade and bonfire, there wouldn’t be a more provocative combustible. Nationalized healthcare has its own staunch advocates, too, and they will fight back. More conflict. More news. Bigger poll numbers for healthcare.
The immigration issue will also be rekindled in 2012. This time, many of the talking points about illegal immigrants will be drawn from economic angst. “They” are taking our jobs. “Our” taxes are paying for their education and healthcare. “Us and them” issues sizzle. Some Republican presidential candidates will place this fry-pan on the fire of caucus and primary battles. Democrats will respond to ingratiate themselves to Latinos. And it will be on.
Surprisingly, I don’t expect that massive deficit concerns, today’s top issue, will make much of a dent in the 2012 issue agenda. More on that topic next week.
David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.