The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The partisan divides in what we’re worried about

There's a big gap in the perception of issues facing the United States between the red and the blue sides of the aisle. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
4 min

There’s very much a don’t-think-of-an-elephant aspect to asking people what they’re worried about. When pollsters contact to people and ask them how concerned they are about, say, the prospect of the Ukraine-Russia war devolving into World War III, some portion of those they’re talking to probably weren’t spending a lot of time thinking about it until asked. And when asked, there’s a natural response: Yeah, I’m a bit concerned about that!

There’s another factor that comes up, too: partisanship. People are often familiar with their side’s position on a controversial topic, either leading them to share that position or to understand what response to a poll question might comport with their broader ideology. This is, in part, why political parties exist, right? To offer a consensus on complicated issues.

Then there’s a third aspect to consider. Measuring what people are concerned about means either asking an open-ended question or providing options to poll respondents. The latter means both limiting what’s being measured and doing the sort of priming that’s included in the war example above. The former means taking myriad responses from 1,000 people and figuring out if one person’s “worried about war in Europe” and “worried about what Putin does next” are both fairly categorized as “U.S.-Russia war” concerns.

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With all of that context in place, let us now turn to new polling from Fox News asking Americans how concerned they are about various issues.

Actually, one more bit of context: While Fox News overall is an entity with an obvious political viewpoint (that dribbles over the ostensible wall between opinion and news coverage), the channel’s polling outfit has a track record of quality, objective polling. To the extent, in fact, that the channel’s hosts have at times declined to cover findings that didn’t comport with right-wing orthodoxy.

So what are Americans most worried about? Well, of the 14 things Fox News’s pollsters presented, the issue that prompted the most overall concern was inflation. The issue that spurred the least concern? The coronavirus pandemic.

There were robust partisan divides, as you might expect. On the pandemic, for example, Democrats were 25 points more likely to say that they were “very” or “extremely” concerned than were Republicans. But the pandemic was still one of the least-concerning things to Democrats, along with border security. For Republicans, the least-worrisome issues were the pandemic and climate change.

In part because Democrats are relatively unconcerned about border security and Republicans are unconcerned about climate change, those issues had the widest partisan gaps. Republicans were 34 points more likely to express concern about the border. Democrats were a whopping 50 points more likely to say they were worried about climate change.

One interesting comparison is between concern about banning books (“book banning by local school boards,” as the poll question had it) and what’s being taught in public schools. Overall, about the same percentage of the population expresses concern about those situations, but Democrats are 19 points more likely to express concern about the former and Republicans 19 points more likely to express concern about the latter. In essence, these two questions reflect partisan poles on the same issue, so this split makes sense.

One interesting aspect of Fox News’s polling is what isn’t captured in their results: what they added and removed relative to prior polls. The question about TikTok’s ties to China is new, for example, as is the question about banks. Perhaps those will become long-term components of the question set. Or maybe they’re injections of what Fox News’s pollsters think might be of concern to people in the moment and never appear again.

Meanwhile, options like “voter fraud” and “illegal immigration,” seen in prior Fox News polls like one conducted in September, don’t appear here. I’d be curious where Republicans continue to rank purported fraud relative to other things, but it’s hard to say. Tracking issues over time does become tricky when the root of the issues themselves change. That September poll asked about “higher crime rates,” something Fox News’s programming was very interested in discussing. But asking about that now implies that crime is continuing to push higher, something for which there’s not good evidence.

You’ll notice that Fox News’s poll includes that question about the possibility of the Russia-Ukraine war eventually enveloping the U.S. Most Americans are somewhat concerned about that (as they are about everything except the pandemic). Republicans are more concerned about it than Democrats, though not by a whole lot. That it ranks so low, though, is fascinating in this context, since it’s Fox News host Tucker Carlson who’s been at the forefront of arguing that such an escalation was imminent or inevitable.

Polls often indirectly measure things, too.