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Abortion Moves Up on “Most Important Problem” List

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the U.S., 8% of the resulting mentions focus on abortion. While not high on an absolute basis, this is the highest such percentage since Gallup began tracking mentions of abortion in 1984. Additionally, another 6% of Americans name a related issue — problems with the nation’s judicial system and courts.

Abortion ranks behind three other issues on the “most important” list in Gallup’s July 5-26 update. Inflation (17%) and dysfunctional government or bad leadership (17%) top the list, with another 12% of Americans making general complaints about the economy. In addition to specific mentions of inflation, 5% of respondents mention fuel and gas prices.

The jump in mentions of abortion as the top problem is likely a direct reflection of the recent Supreme Court Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Media outlets began reporting the leaked court decision on May 2, and mentions of abortion as the top problem rose to 5% in Gallup’s May poll. These mentions fell in the June survey, which was conducted before the court issued its ruling in the Dobbs case on June 24. Gallup’s July survey showing the 8% mentions for abortion began after the court’s official publication of that decision.

Concerns About the Economy and Government Continue at the Top of the List

Mentions of inflation as the top U.S. problem have been much higher than the current 17% at other times, including October 1981, when they reached 52%.Concerns about inflation as the nation’s most important problem were also likely very high in the inflationary years of the 1970s, although comparable Gallup estimates are not available because of shifts in coding procedures from that time to the present.

In short, although Americans are as likely to say inflation is the most important problem facing the nation as any other issue, concerns about inflation — as expressed in these top-of-mind responses — have, at least for the moment, leveled off.

Overall, 35% of respondents mention some aspect of the economy, including inflation, general mentions of the economy, fuel prices and other issues like employment or taxes. This percentage is down modestly from June and is much lower than at previous points in history, such as in February 2009, when 86% mentioned an economically related issue.

Americans’ concerns about the U.S. government have been a staple of Gallup’s monthly updates of the most important problem over the past decade, fluctuating from month to month but usually representing a substantial percentage of all mentions. The types of concerns in this category are wide-ranging, including partisan criticisms of the “other side” — with Republicans naming President Joe Biden as the top problem, and Democrats naming former President Donald Trump or Republicans in general. Another 6% of Americans mention the need to unify the country as the nation’s top problem, which fits into this general theme of dissatisfaction with the country’s political divisions.

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Mentions of Inflation and Abortion as Top Problems Are Highly Partisan

The record-high percentage of Americans who mention abortion as the top problem is driven primarily by the concerns of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 13% of whom say that abortion is the nation’s top problem. This puts abortion in second place on the list of Democrats’ concerns, just behind the government at 15%.

By contrast, 4% of Republicans and Republican leaners mention abortion. Presumably, Republicans, 58% of whom in May favored overturning Roe v. Wade, are less likely to view abortion as a problem, given the Dobbs decision. The decision has raised alarms among Democrats, who are much more likely to have opposed overturning Roe.

Republicans’ top concern is inflation, mentioned by 25%, contrasting with 8% of Democrats who mention it. Additionally, 9% of Republicans mention gas and fuel prices as the top problem, compared with 2% of Democrats.

Republicans are in part more likely to mention inflation, the economy in general and fuel prices as the top problem because they associate these with the Biden administration. This follows from the well-documented pattern by which partisans whose party’s president is in the White House are much more likely to be positive about the economy than others. In the current July Gallup poll, for example, 8% of Republicans and leaners rate economic conditions as excellent or good, and 71% rate them as poor. That compares with 21% of Democrats and leaners who rate the economy as excellent or good and 31% who rate it as poor.

Three other issues reflect similar partisan gaps. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say that gun-related issues and climate/environmental issues are the top problems. On the other hand, Republicans are much more likely to mention immigration.

These differences are stark. Not a single Republican in Gallup’s July survey mentions the environment as the top issue, compared with 6% of Democrats. Less than 1% of Democratic respondents mention immigration, compared with 11% of Republicans. Similarly, 9% of Democrats say gun-related issues are the nation’s most important problem, compared with 1% of Republicans.

COVID-19, Climate, and Other Issues in the News

  • Biden recently tested positive for COVID-19, and there is continuing news coverage of new COVID-19 variants and increases in cases and hospitalizations, but few Americans (1%) mention COVID-19 as the nation’s top problem. This compares with a peak of 45% mentions of COVID-19 in April 2020 and 20% in January of this year.
  • Many parts of the nation have suffered record heat in recent weeks, and other regions have received record flooding. But a low 3% of Americans mention the weather, the environment or climate change as the nation’s top problem.
  • The war in Ukraine remains a dominant news story, but only 1% of Americans mention the situation with Russia as the major problem facing the U.S. Mentions of the Ukraine situation were at 9% in March, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
  • A great deal of news media coverage in recent months has focused on the Select House Committee Hearings on the Jan. 6, 2020, attack on the U.S. Capitol, but so few mention the issue as the nation’s top problem that it is not coded as a separate category. Some concerns about this issue, however, may be reflected in comments included in the general government category.
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Implications

The “most important problem” question, one of several ways of measuring Americans’ perceptions of the challenges facing the nation, has several significant benefits.

The question builds on a significant historical trend. Gallup first asked it in 1935, making it one of Gallup’s longest-lasting trend questions. Gallup repeated the question on an intermittent basis in the decades through the 1990s. From March 2001 to the present, the question has been asked every month.

Interestingly, Gallup’s report from its Nov. 4-9, 1935, survey shows the top problems mentioned by Americans were employment, government, neutrality, reduction of taxes, preservation of the Constitution and ending the Depression. Many of these same issues show up today, some 87 years later, particularly those relating to the economy and the appropriate role of government.

A second benefit of this question derives from its open-ended format, which provides valuable information on concerns that rise to the top of Americans’ consciousness without prior prompting. At this point, as seen above, what comes to Americans’ minds when they are queried about the top U.S. problems are economic issues (in particular, inflation), dysfunctions in the government, and a variety of specific issues, including abortion, immigration, guns and gun control, race, and crime. Presumably, these issues will be important in the forthcoming midterm elections.

It is important to note that other issues may not be top of mind but register as important when Americans are asked about problems in different ways. Two of these are education and healthcare. Relatively few Americans mention either as the most important problem facing the nation, but prior research shows low levels of satisfaction with each, and each is given a high priority as a focus point for government.

The “most important problem” question asks about problems “today,” and thus doesn’t measure Americans’ concerns about issues that may be important in the future. Research, for example, shows that climate change rises to the top of the list when Americans are asked about the most important problems that will face the world in the future if nothing is done to stop them.

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