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What Should We Make of Poll Revealing What New Top Issue Is?

AP Photo/Mark Tenally

Polls have consistently shown that economic issues, such as cost of living, inflation, and rising prices, are at the top of Americans' minds when it comes to their priorities and what they're most concerned about as the fast-approaching November midterm elections loom closer. This has shown to be particularly bad for Democrats, as Republicans are regarded as the party most trusted on such issues. Such misfortune exists on top of how the president's party in power almost always loses seats in his first midterm election.

The release of an NBC poll on Sunday news certainly raised some eyebrows, as it showed that that is no longer the place, when it comes to this one poll that is. 

According to the poll, 21 percent of respondents said that their first choice for "the MOST important issue facing this country," with original emphasis, was "Threats to democracy," while 16 percent said "Cost of living" and 14 percent said "Jobs and the economy." It's worth mentioning though that both the top two issues had an equal score of 29 percent when it comes to those who said it was their first or second most important issue.

A tweet from NBC's "Meet the Press" claimed that this result is "a potential advantage for the Democrats" and as a result could make for "an unpredictable November." This is not likely the case, though, since if anything what's likely to be "unpredictable" is the size of the red wave that's likely coming. 

Early on in the program, host Chuck Todd teased results of the poll, including how "for the first time ever, when asked what is the most important issue facing this country the top answer was not an economic issue, it was threats to the democracy," which is "higher than cost of living or jobs or guns or even abortion." Considering that abortion was tied with guns for the sixth most important issue, at 8 percent, it's very much unnecessary that Todd added in the line of "even abortion." The host went on to mention that "this is the environment in which voters are going to the polls this November." 

Pointing to historical trends, Todd mentioned that "in a normal year, these numbers would forecast electoral doom for the party in power. But boy, these midterms, they’re going to be unlike any we've seen in history, and I’ll warn you, the old rules of politics probably don’t apply."

When it comes to the claims that "these midterms [are] going to be unlike any we've seen in history," and "the old rules of politics probably don't apply," even those who claim that these midterms may favor Democrats, even and including the House, admit that this probably isn't actually the case.

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver is one of those who has made such a claim, as he did earlier this month. Buried in his thread though was the admittance that Republicans are still favored to win control of the House, which his site still predicts to be the case. 

As Guy covered earlier on Monday, it's not all good news for Democrats, though. Even Todd admitted as much, when also highlighting how 74 percent think that the country is "off on the wrong track." That he would do so in the same breadth as claiming the upcoming midterms may now Democrats may draw concerns about how out of touch the mainstream media seems to the American people. 

It's also worth emphasizing, since Todd did not do so, that Republicans still hold a narrow lead over Democrats when respondents were asked their "preference for the outcome of this November’s congressional elections." Forty-seven percent chose Republicans, while 45 percent chose Democrats. This is actually an improvement for Republicans, and the highest this year. In January, March, and May of this year, Republicans had support from 46 percent, while Democrats for those respective months had 47, 44, and 46 percent support. 

Republicans also have a one-point advantage when it comes to how strongly they feel about wanting their party to control Congress. A plurality of respondents, at 38 percent, say they feel "strongly" about wanting a Republican-controlled Congress, while 37 percent say they feel "strongly" about wanting a Democratic-controlled Congress. 

That this top issue result appears in one poll means it's very likely an outlier. In each of the multiple releases from FiveThirtyEight consulting Americans, "inflation" has always been the top concern. Further, "threats to democracy" is more open to interpretation than "cost of living" is, and could have different meanings for different voters. 

Some respondents, perhaps, might have chosen the issue in light of the FBI raid on former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago, having concerns with an overly politicized and unaccountable Department of Justice. 

During Monday's episode of "Katy Tur Reports" on MSNBC, Steve Kornacki analyzed the partisan divide on the poll. Broken down by party, a plurality of Democrats, at 28 percent, responded with "Threats to democracy" while 16 percent of Republicans chose that result. The top issue for Republicans was "Immigration and the situation at the border," which 30 percent chose. Just 2 percent of Democrats chose that issue. 

Kornacki also raised the question of what "Threats to democracy" actually means to respondents. "When you say 'threats to democracy,' does it mean one thing to Democrats and something else to Republicans, that might complicate the meaning there, depending on who you're asking." 

He also raised a particularly telling point about not just the phrasing of the questions and what they might mean to different respondents, but how they were broken up by topic. "I think one other thing we could lose sight of is 'cost of living' [and] 'jobs/economy,' you know, we separate them out here, but they really could arguably fall under one umbrella there" as 'economic related' issues." Kornacki went on to illustrate that "if you do add them together, you would still have a plurality, saying either inflation or jobs and the economy clocking in at the top issue, [with] 30 percent citing that."

Such results, especially with a partisan breakdown, are especially telling in that they conflict with results from a Fox News poll conducted and released in June, in which registered voters gave Republicans a +1 advantage on the issue of the "preservation of American democracy," at 46 percent, while 45 percent trusted Democrats more. That poll was conducted June 10-13, with 1,002 registered voters and a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. 

This NBC News poll in question was conducted August 12-16, with 1,000 registered voters and a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. 

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