The Return of Our Saliency Index, 2023 Edition

The Return of Our Saliency Index, 2023 Edition

As part of our election analysis last cycle we spent time looking at and discussing the concept of salience in public opinion research.  I began producing something called the “Saliency Index,” which uses Navigator Research data on the “most important issue” question and broke it out by party (see here for more on the methodology).  Here a new Saliency Index, below, using Navigator data from their latest poll completed on January 9th, with comparisons to ones run in 2021 and 2022. 

We are going to reboot this project this year because I have become convinced that the way the “most important issue” question was used (badly) last cycle was part of why so many analysts got the election so wrong.  Given the power of right wing media today, I don’t know that we can really be talking about a single national political discourse any more.  There’s the conversation happening inside the right wing bubble, and then there is everything else.  And I think it is far more instructive for political analysts to acknowledge this reality, and recognize that the candidates of the two parties are operating in entirely different information universes. 

We also like the was Navigator asks the question for they allow people to choose their top 4 issues.  It gives far more information than the way it is often asked which is to name your single top issue.  Not sure anyone really looks at the world that way.  There is never only one thing we focus on in life.  It is about managing our competing interests and responsibilities, not choosing one among them all.  We just think this is a far better way to ask the question. 

Looking at the data above, note that vast differences in the Dem and GOP electorates on issues like immigration, climate, guns, even inflation.  For my friends in the Democratic Party, understanding these differences matters, for sometimes I think we get dragged into engaging on issues of great salience/importance to GOP voters but which are of marginal salience to ours because of the power of the right wing noise machine and simple math – if you only ask the question for all voters, issues of great salience to Rs will rise to the top even if they are of marginal salience to those voters available to us. 

In my own journey through political data and analysis over the past year I've come to believe, strongly, that those doing analysis need to work harder to push beyond facile data and intrepretations which can far more simplistic and distorting than descriptive.  The problems with the "most important issue" question is similar in my mind to what are very simplistic reads on the 2022 elections with a national data set when it was clear, very clear, that there were two elections in 2022 - a bluer one in the battlegrounds, a redder one outside.  Failure to capture that level of detail will make most analysis of 2022 just off, for a decline in Dem performance from either 2018 or 2020 overall fails to capture the gains Dems made in AZ, CO, GA, MI, MN, NH, PA, or that we picked up Senate seats, Govs races and state legislative districts.  Any attempt to paint 2022 as an election where Dems fell back against previous benchmarks is "red wavey," even sophistry.