# On the salience of political issues: The problem with ‘most important problem’ (2022)

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## Electoral Studies

Volume 24, Issue 4,

December 2005

, Pages 555-579

## Abstract

Salience is an important concept throughout political science. Traditionally, the word has been used to designate the importance of issues, particularly for voters. To measure salience in political behavior research, scholars often rely on people's responses to the survey question that asks about the “most important problem” (MIP) facing the nation. In this manuscript, I argue that the measure confuses at least two different characteristics of salience: The importance of issues and the degree to which issues are a problem. It even may be that issues and problems are themselves fundamentally different things, one relating to public policy and the other to conditions. Herein, I conceptualize the different characteristics of MIP. I then undertake an empirical analysis of MIP responses over time in the US. It shows that most of the variation in MIP responses reflects variation in problem status. To assess whether these responses still capture meaningful information about the variation in importance over time, I turn to an analysis of opinion-policy dynamics, specifically on the defense spending domain. It shows that changes in MIP mentions do not structure public responsiveness to policy or policymaker responsiveness to public preferences themselves. Based on the results, it appears that the political importance of defense has remained largely unchanged over time. The same may be true in other domains. Regardless, relying on MIP responses as indicators of issue importance of any domain is fundamentally flawed. The responses may tell us something about the “prominence” of issues, but we simply do not know. The implication is clear: We first need to decide what we want to measure and then design the instruments to measure it.

(Video) What are Political Issues?

## Issue salience in theory

What is a salient issue? It is customary to write about salience but less common to define it. Originally, as noted above, it was used by political scientists to refer to the “importance” individuals placed on certain issues. It similarly can be used in reference to other kinds of things of political relevance, including candidate characteristics for example. From this point of view, salience designates a weight individuals attach to political information—the degree to which it impacts party

## The problem with “most important problem” in practice

Although the foregoing “theory” generalizes across space and time, there are real difficulties in modelling the cross-sectional coordinates of MIP. We just do not have very good subjective or objective indicators of problem status at the individual level. Consider the economy. Some people will say that it is the most important problem and other people will mention something else. How do we know whether these differences are due to differences in perceived problem or else importance? We cannot

## MIP responses and importance?

The foregoing analyses reveal potential problems with using aggregate MIP responses as indicators of the importance of issues or even important problems. Most of the variance reflects changes in problem status within domains and in other domains. Still, it is important to not overdraw the conclusion—at least not yet—for at least two reasons that have already been noted. First, there is surplus variance, and it may be that this to some extent reflects change in issue importance. Second, it may

## A model of opinion-policy dynamics, including MIP

The thermostatic model implies that policymakers respond to public preferences for policy change and that the public, in turn, adjusts its preferences in response to what policymakers do (Wlezien, 1995, Wlezien, 1996 also see Deutsch, 1963, Easton, 1965). To begin with, the public's preference for ‘more’ or ‘less’ policy—its relative preference, R—represents the difference between the public's preferred level of policy (P) and the level it actually gets (P).$\begin{array}{c}{R}_{t}={P}_{t}^{\ast }-{P}_{t}\\ {R}_{t}={R}_{t-1}+\Delta {P}_{t}^{\ast }-\Delta {P}_{t}\\ \Delta {R}_{t}=\Delta {P}_{t}^{\ast }-\Delta {P}_{t}\end{array}$

## An expository empirical analysis

For this analysis, consider the interrelationships between public preferences and policy change in a single domain—spending on defense in the US. The decision reflects a variety of considerations. First, and most importantly, we know a good amount about defense MIP from the foregoing analysis. This is of obvious significance given the theoretical model outlined above. Second, we have good data on defense spending decisions and public spending preferences themselves over a reasonable time

## Concluding thoughts

One might think that an important issue is salient by definition. This is not the case given traditional measurement, which relies on responses to questions about the “most important problem” facing the nation. Whether an issue is an “important problem” to the public is a function of importance and the degree to which it is a problem. The most important problem, in turn, is just that, the plurality important problem winner. At best, then importance and measured salience are two related, but

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• ## Cited by (301)

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In this article, we show with the European Election Study from nine Western European countries that issue salience of the economy and immigration contributes to our understanding of the puzzling relation between economic conditions and populist radical right support. In countries with relatively weak or worsening economic conditions, the economy is considered more salient, whereas immigration loses salience – also compared to other issues. Voters who perceive the economy as most important problem are less likely to opt for the populist radical right than people who perceive immigration or even other issues as most important. Populist radical right parties appear to not only win votes on the immigration issue, they also lose votes on the economic issue. Finally, in contrast to actual economic conditions, negative perceptions of the economy increases populist radical right voting, despite stronger salience of the economy and partly due to stronger salience of immigration compared to other issues.

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Despite growing scholarship on the politics of sociotechnical transitions, the role of aparticularly relevant actor type – political parties – has been largely overlooked. To address this gap, we examine party position change on energy technologies and related policy instruments, and analyze how these party positions co-evolve with technological change. Based on a novel dataset, we map positions of relevant political parties in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, 1980–2017. We find that changes in positions and their salience vary across energy technologies and party families, and correlate with broader transition pathways identified by previous studies. We discover that – moderated by party and party system characteristics and path dependence – position change results from ‘technological learning’ by parties based on changing issue characteristics of technologies. We discuss the relevance of our findings for the politics of sociotechnical transitions and provide avenues for future research.

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## FAQs

### What does salience mean in politics? ›

Salience is the state or condition of being prominent. The Oxford English Dictionary defines salience as "most noticeable or important." The concept is discussed in communication, semiotics, linguistics, sociology, psychology, and political science.

### What are salient issues quizlet? ›

Terms in this set (25)

A salient issue focuses the attention of one or more groups, then causing it/them to express an opinion to government on the issue.

### What is a position issue in politics? ›

Position issues are an alternative to valence issues, as position issues create disagreement among voters because a broad consensus on the issue is lacking.

### What is research problem in political science? ›

Particular emphasis is given to understanding research problems in modern classics in different sub-disciplines of political science. The term 'research problem' is used generically to denote a sufficient reason or set of reasons for conducting demanding research on the basis of a given question.

### What is the meaning of salient issues? ›

1 Definition

According to Merriam-Webster, “salient” means leaping or springing for movement, or standing out in a conspicuous way. In the phrase “salient issues,” the word means standing out. Therefore, a salient issue is one that stands out from other issues.

### What salience means? ›

Definition of salience

1 : the quality or state of being salient. 2 : a striking point or feature : highlight.

### What are three features of public opinion what does each describe quizlet? ›

2) What are three components of public opinion and what do they describe? The three components of public opinion are direction, intensity, and stability. Direction. describes the direction of public opinion in positive or negative terms.

### What are the four qualities of a poll quizlet? ›

Intensity, fluidity, stability, relevance, and political knowledge.

### What are the characteristics of public opinion polls quizlet? ›

Public opinion has 4 basic traits: salience, stability, direction and intensity.

### What is a positional issue? ›

Positional issues are at the core of an exchange between citizens who care about a small set of issues and political parties who target these citizens using micro-campaigns. Such behaviour contrasts with the expected behaviour of parties in a brokerage politics system.

### What is a wedge issue in politics? ›

A wedge issue is a political or social issue, often of a controversial or divisive nature, which splits apart a demographic or population group.

### What are the main topics in political science? ›

Understanding Political Theory. Constitutional Government and Democracy in India. Political Processes in India. Political Theory-Concepts and Debates.

### What is a good political research question? ›

Here are interesting topics for brainstorming: Post-War Countries Conflicts Art Legacy. African-American Prisoners Conflicts. United States Foreign Policy.

### How do you define politics in the Philippines? ›

Defining Filipino Political Culture. Politics involves the production, allocation and use of decision-making powers among large groups of individuals. In stable and strong states, political activities usually refer to the powers of the state to govern.

### What is an example of salient? ›

The definition of salient is something that is very noticeable, jumps or is prominent. An example of salient is a large dark mole on someone's forehead. An example of salient is a key point in a proposal.

### What are salient factors? ›

/ˈseɪ.li.ənt/ The salient facts about something or qualities of something are the most important things about them: She began to summarize the salient features/points of the proposal. The article presented the salient facts of the dispute clearly and concisely.

### How do you use the word salient? ›

The salient points or facts of a situation are the most important ones. He read the salient facts quickly. Chronic fatigue is also one of the salient features of depression. ...the salience of social reforms.

### What is the salience effect? ›

The Salience Effect explores the why, when and how of which elements are “salient” for different individuals - meaning which elements we are most drawn to and will focus our attention on.

### What is another word for salience? ›

Some common synonyms of salient are conspicuous, noticeable, outstanding, prominent, remarkable, and striking. While all these words mean "attracting notice or attention," salient applies to something of significance that merits the attention given it.

### What is salience decision making? ›

The salience bias (also known as perceptual salience) occurs when we focus on items or information that are especially remarkable while casting aside those that lack prominence. Yet, people tend to overlook this difference because it often appears irrelevant from an objective point of view.

### What are the two most important factors in shaping public opinion? ›

Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of people. Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion.

### What is the importance of public opinion quizlet? ›

Why is public opinion important? It guides government action, influences public policy, gives feedback to politicians. It gives self rule in democracy.

### What factors influence public opinion quizlet? ›

Public opinion is those attitudes held by a significant number of people on matters of the government and politics. The main factors shaping public opinion include family, school/education, mass media, peer groups, opinion leaders, and historic events.

### Which of the following is the most important principle in sampling quizlet? ›

the most important principle in sampling, or poll taking is randomness. Randomness is every person should have a known chance, and especially an equal chance, of being sampled.

### What is the significance of political socialization quizlet? ›

A group consisting of members sharing common social characteristics. These groups play an important part in the socialization process, helping to shape attitudes and beliefs. The process through which individuals learn a set of political attitudes and form opinions about social issues.

### How do interest groups benefit by helping to elect candidates quizlet? ›

How do interest groups influence elections? Interest groups become involved in elections to influence Policymakers. They may contribute funds, make independent expenditures, advocate issues, and mobilize voters.

### Why is the public's lack of political information a concern quizlet? ›

Those who lack political information cannot effectively defend their own political interests. A large number of politically inattentive individuals means the political process can easily be manipulated by institutions and forces seeking to shape public opinion.

### What is the definition of public opinion quizlet? ›

public opinion. definition: the distribution of individual preferences or evaluations of a given issue, candidate, or institution within a specific population.

### What is a public opinion poll quizlet Chapter 10? ›

Public Opinion Polls. surveys with samples of citizens that are used to estimate the beliefs of the entire population.

### What does Valence mean in politics? ›

Valence politics, also known as competence voting, is a model of voting behaviour that emphasises that individuals vote based upon "people's judgements of the overall competence of the rival political parties".

### Which of the following scenarios best describes the process of political socialization? ›

Which of the following scenarios best describes the process of political socialization? An individual's political views are influenced by his religious beliefs regarding social justice.

### What is the campaign practice of collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data known as and what is it used for? ›

What is the campaign practice of collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data known as, and what is it used for? Data mining is used to discover patterns and associations in voter habits.

### What are socio/political issues? ›

Sociopolitical definition

The definition of sociopolitical is something that involves both social and political factors. An example of something that is sociopolitical is the issue of environmental conservation, which is influenced by both social attitudes towards "going green" and by political policies. adjective. 9.

### Why is social issues important? ›

Social issues are important research topics because they help people understand that there are many ways to think about and approach the same problem, and they teach essential critical thinking skills.

### What is a wedge issue quizlet? ›

wedge issue. a controversial issue that one party uses to split the voters in the other party.

### What is government efficacy? ›

In political science, political efficacy is the citizens' trust in their ability to change the government and belief that they can understand and influence political affairs. It is commonly measured by surveys and is used as an indicator for the broader health of civil society.

### What is a populist? ›

Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of the people and often juxtapose this group against the elite. The term developed in the late 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, parties and movements since that time, often as a pejorative.

### What is saliency in terms of public speaking? ›

Salience, a concept little analyzed in linguistics/pragmatics, is defined here as that quality which determines how semantic material is distributed within a sentence or discourse, in terms of the relative emphasis which is placed on its various parts.

### What is salience decision making? ›

The salience bias (also known as perceptual salience) occurs when we focus on items or information that are especially remarkable while casting aside those that lack prominence. Yet, people tend to overlook this difference because it often appears irrelevant from an objective point of view.

### What is salience effect? ›

The Salience Effect explores the why, when and how of which elements are “salient” for different individuals - meaning which elements we are most drawn to and will focus our attention on.

### What is salience bias? ›

Salience Bias is the cognitive bias that predisposes shoppers to focus on items that are more prominent or emotionally striking. Salience bias determines that shoppers ignore items that are unremarkable, in favour of more emotionally striking items, even though the objective difference is often irrelevant.

### What are salient factors? ›

/ˈseɪ.li.ənt/ The salient facts about something or qualities of something are the most important things about them: She began to summarize the salient features/points of the proposal. The article presented the salient facts of the dispute clearly and concisely.

### What is salience research? ›

Saliency refers to the degree to which a topic or event resonates with a prospective respondent or sample member. The more a topic or event resonates with a sample member, the more salient or important that topic or event tends to be in that person's life.

### Who is a salient person? ›

The term salient refers to anything (person, behavior, trait, etc.) that is prominent, conspicuous, or otherwise noticeable compared with its surroundings.

### What does salience mean in economics? ›

When goods are characterized by only one quality attribute and price, salience tilts choices toward goods with higher ratios of quality to price.

### Which of the following is an example of salience? ›

Salience is a critical low level cognitive ability that supports situational awareness. For example, a driver going at 40 miles per hour who is able to quickly focus on relevant things such as pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles and traffic lights from a fast moving stream of visual information.

### Why do we use salience? ›

The bottom line. Clearly, salience is one of the most important elements when designing customer experiences. We can use it to make better design decisions and create more effective experiences.

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