The notion is a simple one- we vote for the politicians with whom we have agreement on policy issues. But what if that were not true- what if we vote for the politician who we like in our gut, then we change our policy preferences to align with our candidate? What if the chicken came before the egg, and the candidate came before the policy? We as a society like to think of ourselves as principled; we vote based on the issues. We are capable of seeing past the charisma and the charm- we are all business! While we would all like to believe this is the case, the data suggests otherwise. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at a few examples:

President Obama’s search popularity skyrocketed quickly during the 2008 presidential election cycle. He was charismatic, well spoken, and he had the opportunity to be the first African American President of the United States. But if you asked anyone now why they liked or disliked Obama, his signature policy proposal- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act- would probably come up in the discussion as a primary reason. Based on these conversations, one might understandably think that people’s opinions of Obama were based on his healthcare reform policies, but people were not talking about major healthcare reform before Obama came into the scene.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest Ratings in the United States.

 

If Google search interest is a good metric to gauge the US population’s interest in a topic, then it is fairly obvious by the chart above that Obama’s popularity came before his signature policy made noise. In fact, few people were even talking about healthcare reform before Obama brought the issue to prominence.

Source: Gallup Polling Data 2000-2020: Responsibility for Health Insurance

 

It gets more interesting. Politicians don’t seem to only influence the popularity of issues and policies; they also impact people’s feeling about the issue. As stated earlier, many believe that if they agree with a politician’s positions on key issues, then they will be more likely to support the politician. The truth could potentially be the opposite. Voters tend to agree or disagree with political policies and issues depending on how they feel about the candidate who brought the issue to the forefront of political debate.

According to polling data, most Americans believed the federal government was responsible for making sure all Americans have healthcare coverage. That was until Obama took office and tried to reform the healthcare system. The number of poll respondents who held this position plummeted to as low as 42% during Obama’s presidency. There are, of course, many potential factors that contribute to shift in public opinion, but the timing aligns with Obama’s presidency.

President Trump’s signature policy proposal during his campaign was to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico to impede illegal immigration into the United States. This issue defined his campaign, and both his supporters and detractors frequently reference the border wall when explaining their feelings on Trump.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest Ratings in the United States.

 

Similar to President Obama and healthcare reform, peak search interest for the Mexico-United States barrier did not occur until after the rise in President Trump’s own search popularity, indicating Trump’s popularity rose before the popularity of his signature policy proposal.

Source: CATO Institute, Roper iPoll Database, Time, LA Times/Bloomberg, Gallup/USA Today, CBS, CNN, AP/Ipsos, NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo, Washington Post/ABC/Economist/YouGov, Quinnipiac Surveys

 

Also similar to Obama and healthcare reform, Trump’s border wall became a divisive issue only after his presidential campaign brought the issue to the forefront of political debate. Polls as recent as 2005 indicated over 50% of Democrats supported building a wall or fence along the US-Mexico border, but those numbers plummeted to as low as 11% during the 2016 election cycle!

While Trump’s border wall and Obama’s healthcare reform plan may have lagged in terms of national attention and polarization compared to the respective candidates who brought the issues to light, a skeptical viewer of the data above may say this result is unique to Presidential winners whose inherent power forces these issues. But influential politicians don’t necessarily need to win to make an issue prevalent or influence how people feel about that policy. Senator Bernie Sanders’ key policy during both his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns was Medicare for All- the notion that all Americans should receive health insurance from a single government plan.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest Ratings in the United States.

 

In Senator Sanders’ case, not only did he make Medicare for All a highly discussed political policy during the last two election cycles, but the policy actually didn’t peak in terms of search interest until his 2020 campaign, where he eventually lost to Joe Biden in the Democratic primary.

Source: KFF Polls

 

Before the rise of Bernie Sanders’ popularity, most Americans opposed getting their insurance from a single government plan, but as of February 2016- when Senator Sanders was in the heat of a competitive Democratic primary race with Hillary Clinton- the polling data suggested Americans’ opinions began to shift to view Medicare for All more favorably.

As we dig deeper into the topic of what influences Americans’ feelings on specific politicians, there will assuredly be many factors to consider- media coverage, the rise of social media, and a widening gap between political parties to name a few- but the notion that the policies proposed by these politicians are what drives voters’ like or dislike for the candidates seems to play a smaller role than many would anticipate. With that in mind, we will see what the next era of politicians and their respective hallmark policies have in store for us!