I have an issue with how exit polls treat issues

Polling questions that isolate ‘inequality’ do no justice to the social ills that ail us.

We can’t seem to have an election these days without “exit polls.” News organizations—on every big ballot-box day—now routinely stop voters exiting polling places to ask who they voted for.

But the questions don’t stop at candidate choice. News groups are also asking voters to identify the issue they worry about the most, usually by giving them a list of issue options to choose from.

Last week’s Super Tuesday balloting abounded with exit polling and issue-list options. Courtesy of NBC News, for instance, we’ve quickly learned that “health care remains the top issue for Democrats.”

“Forty percent of Democratic Super Tuesday voters said health care was the most important issue to their vote, with climate change and income inequality at 22 percent and 21 percent, respectively, and race relations the top issue for 10 percent of the electorate,” summed up the NBC take on the exit-poll data.

In Texas, the New York Times informed us, 19 percent of primary voters say income inequality “mattered most” to them and 47 percent cited health care as their top worry. In California, 34 percent chose health care as their top concern, with income inequality the top worry for 25 percent.

Lists of issue options, if carefully crafted, can certainly help reveal what people care about and value. But option lists can also distort our political dialogue, particularly if the options listed turn out to overlap or rest on different political conceptual planes. To be useful, in other words, the options that appear on exit-poll issue lists need to be distinct and comparable.

What do we mean by that? Let’s talk pizza toppings for a moment. Any of us could easily construct a list of pizza toppings for a polling question that aims to get at an accurate sense of which toppings have captured America’s pizza-loving heart.

Things get much more complicated when we talk issues. Take “health care” and “income inequality,” two of the four choices the most widely administered Super Tuesday exit poll put to voters. This poll treated health care and inequality as two entirely separate issues. But no such hard-and-fast distinction—in real life—exists.

Many Americans, for example, see out-of-control prescription drug prices as their biggest health-care worry. Why do the execs who run our drug companies charge such outrageously high prices for their prescription drugs? They have an incentive for this outrageous behavior: the outrageous rewards they can gain by squeezing consumers at every turn.

One example: The CEO at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals pocketed $118 million in 2018. Dupixent, a Regeneron treatment for skin rashes, cost sufferers that year as much as $37,000 for 12 months. Why can’t the government do something to stop this sort of price-gouging? Staggering levels of inequality have left us with a political system rigged to serve our richest and most powerful.

But the linkage between health and inequality goes even deeper than price-gouging and plutocracy. In fact, epidemiologists—the scientists who study the health of populations—have come to see inequality as a social reality that fundamentally drives just how good or poor our health may be.

Inequality, in effect, makes us sick. In societies where income and wealth concentrate, where the wealthy enjoy prosperity and most everyone else faces precarity, high levels of stress become a relentless unwelcome companion. That stress wears down our immune systems and leads us—for relief—into dangerous and unhealthy behaviors. We overdose on opioids while those who make and deceptively market opioids make billions.

The bottom line: We won’t “solve” health care until we get serious about making our lives less unequal. And we can make the same point with “climate change” and “race relations,” the other two choices on the Super Tuesday exit-poll issues list. The rich, after all, contribute the most to climate change while the poor pay the biggest price for it. Racism, meanwhile, has divided average working people for generations—and left the wealthy ever comfortable and secure at our economic summit.

Exit polls that treat “issues” as separate silos, in short, simply reinforce the political obfuscations that sustain our staggeringly unequal economic status quo. So let’s ditch the conceptually clumsy issue-option lists. Let’s ask voters instead about what they think about specific solutions to the social ailments that plague us. And then let’s pay attention to the answers voters offer.

On Super Tuesday, the exit polls did actually include a question on a specific proposed solution.

“How do you feel about replacing all private health insurance,” asked a Super Tuesday exit-poll question that placed Medicare for All in an opposition-friendly frame, “with a single government plan for everyone?”

Even given that hostile framing, majorities of voters in all the Super Tuesday states appear to favor Medicare for All. In Texas and Minnesota—two states that gave primary victories to Joe Biden, a Medicare for All opponent—voters backed Medicare for All by nearly two-to-one margins.

This fascinating finding drew precious little major media attention amid the Super Tuesday avalanche of exit-poll coverage. Our voters deserve better.

Content licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License

Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, has just been published. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.

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