Politicians talk about "kitchen-table" issues. Republican presidential candidate Jim Gilmore, for example, has mentioned "ordinary people around the kitchen table, concerned about high taxation, the high cost of living, and the challenges of meeting their obligations." Are those the kinds of issues that are going to drive the 2008 campaign?
This month, a CNN/Opinion Research poll asked people what issues will be "extremely important" to their vote for president. Iraq was the only issue that a majority (51 percent) deemed extremely important. Iraq doesn't sound like a kitchen-table issue, and Republicans hope that it won't be. But it is what voters are worried about.
If there's a sleeper issue for 2008, it's likely to be health care. What's driving it is the rapidly rising cost of health insurance for those currently insured and for their employers, as well as the growing number of uninsured Americans. Forty-three percent of the public said that health care will be extremely important to their vote.
The economy is supposed to be the ultimate kitchen-table issue. Republicans have reason to hope that it is in 2008. In the CNN/Opinion Research poll, 61 percent of Americans said that economic conditions in the country are good, despite rising gasoline prices and falling home prices. But this campaign may not be about "the economy, stupid." Only one-third of respondents called the economy an extremely important issue.
We hear a lot about illegal immigration and abortion, but fewer than a third of Americans rated either issue extremely important (31 percent in the case of illegal immigration, 27 percent in the case of abortion). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., got it just about right when he said, "Other than Iraq and health care, there's no issue on the minds of the American people today other than maybe gas prices and then immigration."
But to say that voters care about an issue is only part of the story. You also have to ask whether those who care are more likely to be on one side of the issue or the other.
Take Iraq. Nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose the war. But do they care about the issue as much as the war's supporters do? In fact, they care more: 58 percent of those who oppose the war say that the issue will be extremely important to their vote. Only 38 percent of war supporters feel that way. The war critics don't just have the numbers, they also have the intensity. That is why Republicans are feeling pressure on Iraq.
How long can GOP lawmakers continue to support President Bush on the war? A group of moderate Republicans warned the president that they could hold on only until September, when Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is due to report on the war's progress. Republicans have to be concerned when they hear Vice President Cheney say, as he did last week in Baghdad, "We didn't get elected to worry just about the fate of the Republican Party. Our mission is to do everything we can to prevail ... against one of the most evil opponents we've ever faced."
On the campaign trail, Democratic presidential candidates have begun talking about universal health insurance. Nearly two-thirds of Americans favor such a program "even if this would require higher taxes," according to the CNN/Opinion Research poll. Moreover, those who want a national health insurance program care about the issue a lot more: 51 percent say that health care is extremely important, while only 30 percent of opponents feel the same way.
A solid majority of Americans—80 percent—favors allowing illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for a number of years to stay and apply for citizenship if they have a job and pay any overdue taxes. Critics call that amnesty. The critics may be far fewer in number, but they have intensity on their side. They are much more likely to say that the immigration issue will be extremely important to their vote (47 percent) than are people who favor a path to citizenship (28 percent).
That's why politicians pay so much attention to letters and e-mails, and to voters who show up at town halls.
Politicians want to know who really cares about an issue. Intensity matters.