WASHINGTON -- Measuring what worries Americans most is an inexact science at best. Very often, the issues that produce the greatest noise don't even top the list.
Congress is in the midst of a political fight over what to do about illegal aliens and the budget deficit, Democrats are hammering the White House on the war in Iraq and President Bush is still getting failing grades in the polls for his handling of the economy and unemployment.
But in a recent Gallup Poll (March 13-16), when 1,000 Americans were asked what they worry about "a great deal," the top five mentioned problems were not issues at the head of Congress' legislative agenda.
The top five were: the availability and affordability of health care (68 percent); the Social Security system (51 percent), the availability and affordability of energy (48 percent); drug use (48 percent); and crime and violence (45 percent).
To the best of my knowledge, Congress doesn't plan to undertake any major heath-care reforms this year. Social Security has been dropped from the nation's reform agenda for now. Energy, drug abuse and crime are not expected to be acted on anytime soon.
Surprisingly, while the war in Iraq and against terrorism has dominated the national dialogue and news coverage, Iraq did not make Gallup's list of top 12 concerns. The "possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S." doesn't even make the top five, but comes in at No. 6 with 45 percent.
Inexplicably, despite Bush's low marks on the economy (contrary to all of the evidence that the economy is strong and the national unemployment rate is low), the majority of Americans polled do not pick it as their chief worry.
Indeed, the economy is at No. 7 with 43 percent and unemployment is at No. 11. Less than one-third (31 percent) of Americans now say that jobs are a major concern, findings that are at odds with polls showing deep dissatisfaction about the economy.
While immigration is the hottest issue in Congress these days, it barely makes the top 10 at No. 9, drawing only 43 percent of Americans who rate it as a chief worry. But that's up 10 points from a year ago.
Rounding out the list of 12 top concerns are hunger and homelessness at No. 8 with 43 percent, the environment at No. 10, with 40 percent, and at the bottom of the list is race relations at No. 12, drawing only 22 percent.
The news media has been pounding the theory of global warming of late, so that probably has a lot to do with its place on the list. The debate over illegal aliens no doubt has pushed race relations up slightly as an issue, particularly among immigrant minorities, but this is clearly not a significant worry among the public at large.
What are we to make of all this?
First, issues that are pushed to the front of the congressional agenda are not necessarily things that a majority of Americans worry about most. Other factors, like who can build a head of steam and public outrage for an issue, can push it to front of the line, when most Americans are more concerned about other matters that affect them personally.
The era of 24/7 cable news, with its habit of exaggerating and hyperventilating over stories, is another factor here. Remember the events that dominated the news for weeks about who in the White House leaked the identity of a CIA agent? Or the disclosure that Bush approved an executive order to intercept overseas terrorist phone calls to people in this country?
Those stories have not only virtually disappeared from the news, very few Americans mention them as major worries now, if they worried about them at all.
Pollsters are guilty of exaggerating events, too, even the Gallup people who provided the above numbers. They seem to come out with new polls almost every day suggesting why the Democrats are drawing more voter support this year and will likely take control of Congress.
But in a recent analysis for the National Journal, ace elections watcher Charlie Cook writes that a Democratic takeover is very unlikely.
"Structural barriers are protecting the GOP's majorities like seawalls, and would likely withstand the surge from a Category 1, 2 or 3 storm," he says.