There is often a significant divide between the story of the day and what voters really expect from elected leaders.
There is often a significant divide between the story of the day and what voters really expect from elected leaders. This can be confusing to the officeholder who gets dozens of angry calls on any given subject. So what do voters really want? It may not be as apparent as it seems. The Congressional Conversational Index (CCI) is a monthly survey compiled by public affairs firm Adfero Group and communications software provider Fireside 21 that measures the average number of contacts that U.S. representatives receive regarding specific issues such as the environment, jobs, and so forth. The CCI is an interesting tool in terms of keeping track of grassroots lobbying. It also provides some guidance to constituent management, but what is most striking is that those issues that rank highest (in terms of frequency of constituent contact) are not those that opinion research indicates are issues that are top of mind to the broader populace. For instance, in the most recent CCI from February of this year, the top ten issues tracked were (1) healthcare; (2) budget; (3) judiciary; (4) abortion and women’s issues; (5) environment; (6) technology; (7) general government issues; (8) transportation; (9) education; and (10) foreign affairs. Yet for the past two years, voters have consistently told our interviewers that they want their congressional representatives to prioritize “the economy and jobs”—a topic that cannot be found in the CCI’s top ten. The CCI is a valuable tool, and it doesn’t represent itself as a measure of broad constituent sentiment. Instead, it has value insofar as it measures the loudest, most persistent voices in the populace. Nonetheless, this is an excellent illustration of why elected officials can easily experience cognitive dissonance regarding the needs, wants, and opinions of their constituents when they base their assessment solely on the feedback their offices receive in the form of phone calls, e-mails, and letters from relatively small groups of motivated constituents. This all sounds fair enough, but does it suffice to simply ask voters directly what they consider to be the most important issue facing their community? Can candidates andelected officials assume that the response to this question matches up with what voters want their elected officials to prioritize? Not necessarily. For example, a recent regional survey we conducted found that local voters ranked the economy and public safety as their top two issues by far, with education, government, and healthcare trailing far behind. However, when asked what they would like their mayor and city council to prioritize, voters ranked “local schools and education” and “bringing jobs to the city” at the top. Why do we see a parallel emphasis on the economy and jobs in response to both questions, but an inconsistent emphasis on schools and education? Voters look to different echelons of elected officials to fulfill different roles (though these roles are not necessarily aligned with the powers of their various offices). In this case, voters place a high value on jobs and feel that local elected officials should somehow play a key role in job creation. Voters also place a high value on education and expect that their local elected officials will help to improve it. From a methodological perspective, it should be noted that this question allows respondents to make up to three selections from a list that is provided to them, rather than responding to an open-ended question with one top issue as in the “most important issue to your community” example. The prioritization query does not ask respondents to rank the three issues they select; “local schools and education” is simply mentioned most often. This allows the researcher another, broad perspective on those items that voters expect their local elected officials to focus on. It’s important to note that in this example, given that most city elected officials have little or no involvement in the affairs of local schools and education, they may be forgiven for assuming that voters don’t ascribe them responsibility on the matter. However, since these voters have the power to extend or cut short the careers of elected officials, those who fail to acknowledge the assumptions of their constituencies do so at their peril. Key takeaways? Just because an elected official or candidate knows what is top of mind to their voters generally or to those who contact their offices directly, they can’t assume that these concerns are equivalent to what the populace as a whole wants them to focus their attention on. And, they can’t simply ignore the fact that their constituencies hold them responsible for areas of policy that they have no direct control over. In short, politicians and their campaigns need to identify their constituents’ expectations and respond to them effectively with their messaging, both of which require a good deal of creativity. Justin Wallin is vice president of Probolsky Research LLC. He is a management, marketing, and strategy expert with over fifteen years of experience.