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New NPR poll examines top issues for Americans

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll asked about several hot-button political issues, and there were some notable findings. The economy takes the top spot, but preserving democracy is also persistently high among people's concerns.

NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here to walk us through some of the results. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

FLORIDO: So the economy was a top issue again across party lines. But for Democrats, the No. 1 issue is preserving democracy, and that rates second for independents. What is going on here?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it's pretty remarkable. You know, this is unique in American history and certainly wasn't the case in the pre-Trump era. You know, we started seeing a rise in this after the January 6 insurrection. And with Trump running again, there are a lot of people, Democrats in particular, who are concerned about what that will mean for American democracy. If you look back before 2015, when Trump came on the scene, the only polls that would show anything about concern for democracy were really in other countries, not here.

FLORIDO: Given a persistent high inflation and increasing interest rates, voters caring about the economy is no surprise. The buck there stops with President Biden, though. So how do people think he's handling it?

MONTANARO: Yeah, this is really one of Biden's biggest vulnerabilities. Only 38% approve of Biden's handling of the economy. And we can debate just how much control a president has over the economy or with unemployment being as low as it is, how bad the economy really is. But this is about perception. And right now, the perception of Biden with persuadable voters on the economy isn't great. Just 28% of independents, for example, approve of his economic handling.

FLORIDO: What about Republicans, Domenico? They have been pushing culture war issues on the campaign trail, and that is what seems to fire up their base. Are there any risks there for them, though, in leaning so hard into these issues?

MONTANARO: Yeah, you know, these culture issues appeal to the base, and Republicans see them as wedge issues. But they're walking a pretty tricky line here. I mean, take transgender rights, for example. There's some public opinion on Republicans' side. For example, in the 2022 midterm elections, 50% said society's values on gender identity and sexual orientation are changing for the worse. And support for criminalizing providing gender transition-related medical care for minors has jumped 15 points in our poll in the last year and a half. But a majority still oppose those kinds of laws. And by an even wider margin, people are against restricting drag shows, for example. Yet Republicans are heavily in favor of both and are out of step with the majority.

FLORIDO: Well, campaigns have to be aware of this, right? How is this playing out on the campaign trail?

MONTANARO: It's really shaping up to be a race to be the loudest on this issue. You know, sometimes that means Republicans veer away from a more popular position to something else. You know, for example, an NPR poll last year found two-thirds opposed allowing transgender female student athletes to compete on women's and girls' sports teams. But here was Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who's running for president, talking earlier this month about this issue during the South Carolina Conservative Conference. And you'll hear, she makes something of a sharp turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: What are you doing when you're allowing biological boys suddenly to intrude in their locker rooms and in their sports? It's wrong. And I will tell you, I don't know where the women's groups are. Because this is the women's issue of our time. And we need to be fighting for our girls.

MONTANARO: I mean, there's a lot of women who would disagree with that. Abortion rights, for example, was a major reason, if not the reason, Democrats did better than expected in the 2022 midterm elections, along with extreme Trump-backed candidates. And yet, Republicans continue to embrace these culture war positions and really do risk taking it too far.

FLORIDO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.

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