Presidential debate questions sync up with voter concerns


The first televised debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will likely revolve around the top priorities of an overwhelming majority of voters: the economy and jobs.

A new Pew Research Center polling analysis, released Monday, finds that the economy is voters’ dominant concern in this fall’s presidential election. An overwhelming proportion 87% — said the economy would be “very important” to their vote (the same percentage as in the 2008 presidential contest). The jobs issue was a close second, with 83% calling it “very important,” followed by healthcare at 74%.

Issues that have less salience this year, when compared with 2008, include energy policy, terrorism and immigration, the poll found.

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TV anchor Jim Lehrer, moderator of the first debate, has announced that he plans to devote half of the 90-minute encounter to questions about the economy. The debate is scheduled to air live on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time.

Other topics — healthcare and the size and scope of government — will occupy most of the remainder of the initial debate, along with questions about governing.

Recent national opinion surveys have shown that Obama and Romney are closely matched when voters are asked which candidate they consider better able to handle problems of the economy and jobs.

The survey found a slight opinion swing in Romney’s favor on the size of government. Four years ago, 46% of voters said they’d rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, while 40% preferred a bigger government providing more services. Now, 56% favor a smaller government, while 35% want a bigger government.

But when it comes to reducing the budget deficit — a very important issue for more than two out of three voters — 69% prefer a combination of tax increases and budget cuts, a position that aligns with Obama’s. Only 16% say the focus should be mostly be on cutting government programs; Romney has reaffirmed his position, which emerged during a GOP primary debate, that he is so intent on cutting spending without increasing taxes that he would not accept a hypothetical deal in which taxes went up by $1 for every $10 in spending cuts.

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Pew’s latest analysis finds that swing voters — the 22% of the electorate that is either undecided or not fully committed to either man — also consider the economy to be their top priority.

On healthcare, a matter of greater importance for women than for men, recent polling by the Pew Center found that Obama holds an advantage over Romney when voters were asked which candidate would do a better job of dealing with the issue. The same goes for Medicare, which ranked sixth in importance for swing voters (healthcare rated fourth on their list, after the economy, jobs and education).

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