WASHINGTON -- Americans often receive a skewed picture of their country's deepest concerns when the news is filtered through the nation's capital.
All too often, those with the loudest voices get the most attention in the nightly news. The issues they put forward are not necessarily the issues that connect with people in what I like to call "the real world" outside the Washington Beltway.
Take, for example, New Jersey, where polls showed last month that voters' biggest concerns, by a whopping 41 percent margin, were state and local taxes -- dwarfing all other issues.
While major issues such as illegal immigrants, skyrocketing gas prices and the war in Iraq were dominating the nightly news shows and taking up much, if not all, of Congress' attention, they were not what worried New Jersey voters the most. In fact, it wasn't even close.
What has got New Jersey really stirred up, almost to the point of an old-fashioned taxpayer rebellion, is Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine's proposal to raise the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, on top of increasing property taxes, which also are a major complaint among angry homeowners.
"When you ask people what's bothering them, with the whole world of troubles to pick from and without any prompting, to draw 41 percent is a very big number," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, who polled 1,414 registered voters between April 18 to April 24.
Well, one might say these are local issues that have little or no impact on the national political crosscurrents assailing the country right now.
Both the sales-tax hike and the state's oppressive property taxes are becoming big issues in New Jersey's U.S. Senate race, where state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the Republican candidate, is focusing on nonfederal issues just like these. And it's one of the reasons he is running even with Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez in the polls.
"Kean knows President Bush isn't popular in New Jersey, and so far he has decided to focus his campaign on local issues rather than sweeping national concerns," reported John Fund in the Wall Street Journal last week.
What are New Jersey's other top concerns? Immigration? Gas prices? Nope. Dishonest "politicians and corruption" are No. 2 at 8 percent. The state's budget deficit, education and the economy are even lesser concerns. Notably, gas prices drew 3 percent of the respondents and immigration 1 percent.
In Michigan, where automotive layoffs have plunged its economy into a crisis, driving the unemployment rate to 6.8 percent, the biggest concern is jobs.
"The economy and jobs is the No. 1 issue here by 40 percent or more. Every day, it seems there is another plant closing or downsizing," said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC/MRA. "This trumps everything."
The next closest issues in the open-ended survey are health care and education," and they poll in the teens.
Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, once one of her party's stars, may be looking for a job, too, next year. She and GOP businessman Dick DeVos are now in a dead heat, says Sarpolus. "DeVos is no longer the underdog. The governor is the underdog," Sarpolus told me.
In Florida, education remains the overriding issue, drawing 24 percent in an open-ended survey, according to Quinnipiac's Florida analyst Peter Brown. Immigration comes in second at 13 percent, but "that is double what it was in February," he said. "That's a big change."
Notably, the economy, for which Bush gets high-disapproval scores nationally, draws only 10 percent in the poll of major concerns.
As in New Jersey and other states, property taxes "are the dominant issue" in Pennsylvania, according to the polls there.
"They are excessive, and they are skyrocketing," said Leonardo Alcivar, spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. The governor promised to do something about property taxes -- but he hasn't. Polls show the race tied.
In Washington state, Republican Senate candidate Mike McGavick told me that, a month ago, voters were asking him at town meetings about Iraq, the budget deficit and government spending.
"When I meet voters, immigration and gas prices are the key topics right now," he said. He thinks some of the change has to do with "what's on the TV news lately."
Still, the former business executive finds that his criticism of the intense partisanship, bickering and stalemate in Washington has struck a chord with voters who have a dismal view of Congress. He has moved to within 7 points of Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell.
What all this means is, different issues - most with a local subtext -- are driving the campaign debates in many states and will ultimately determine the outcome of this year's elections.
An age-old political admonition says, "All politics is local." Or, to put it another way, sometimes those hyperventilated stories that top the nightly network news aren't what worry Americans most.