What Issues Most Influence Approval of the Legislature?

Issues related to schools seem to be driving what people think about the legislature.

This analysis was performed by Robert Richards, a student research fellow at BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, in collaboration with CSED faculty. The writing is mostly his. Inquiries about this research should come to Adam Brown or Quin Monson.

Near the end of the recent legislative session, the Utah legislature’s approval rating among voters was about 48%. We often hear in the news about approval ratings such as these, but what do they mean really? What about the legislature do Utahns approve or disapprove? Based on a Utah Voter Poll conducted near the end of the legislative session, it turns out that people judge the legislature based on their personal views on policy and how well the legislature’s actions represent those views. While some personal characteristics like age and partisanship do also play a role, we found that opinions about school funding and sex education are the best predictors of overall approval of the Utah legislature once other factors are taken into account.1

Our poll also asked about other issues, including health care, taxes, gay marriage, environmental protection, jobs, public lands, liquor reform, and bringing the Olympics back to Utah. Liquor reform and the Olympics had a modest correlation with overall evaluations of the legislature, but none of the other issue questions did (once partisanship, age, and other demographics were taken into account).

In the last session, at least, issues related to schools seem to be driving what people think about the legislature. The table below compares the results of two separate questions from our poll. The first question asks whether Utah spends too little, too much, or the right amount on education. The second asks whether the respondent approves or disapproves of the legislature overall. Those who thought the state spent too much or about the right amount on education approve of the legislature by about a 2 to 1 margin. The exact opposite is true of those who think the state spends too little on education.2

Regarding education, Utah spends… Disapprove of legislature Approve of legislature
Too Little 61% 39%
About Right 32% 68%
Too Much 34% 66%

Another issue related to schools that plays a role in Utahns’ evaluation of the legislature is the issue of sex education. Those who don’t think contraceptives should be taught in schools were much more likely to approve of the legislature than those who held the opposite opinion.3

Public schools in Utah should teach about the use of contraceptives Disapprove of legislature Approve of legislature
Strongly Disagree 25% 75%
Disagree 22% 78%
Neither Agree nor Disagree 48% 52%
Agree 43% 57%
Strongly Agree 87% 13%

For the 2012 session, it looks like education issues were on everyone’s minds. Utahns seem to evaluate the legislature mostly on their performance regarding these issues. This is not to say that the legislature or state policy is right or wrong either way, but it does suggest that Utahns use their own views of what is right for the state’s schools to judge the legislature.

Methodological notes

The Utah Voter Poll (UVP) is a sample of actual Utah voters who were invited to join an online panel as part of the Utah Colleges Exit Poll. Like all exit poll participants, UVP panel members were selected via a probability sample of Utah voters who vote at a polling place on election day. This version of the UVP was fielded online from February 27th to March 11th. 504 respondents answered the questions addressed here, producing a margin of error of roughly 4 percentage points. The margin is larger when looking at a subgroup; when looking only at Republicans, for example, the margin of error is about 7 percentage points. The margin of error is also affected by the complex sampling design and is actually different for each question, depending on the distribution of answers.

Following is the exact question wording used along with results in parentheses:

“Do you approve or disapprove of how the Utah State Legislature is handling its job?”: Strongly approve (2.1%), approve (45.6%), disapprove (29.1%), strongly disapprove (23.2%).

“For each of the categories below, do you think the government of the state of Utah spends too much, too little, or about the right amount? (K-12 Education)”: too much (6.9%), about right (24.6%), too little (68.5%).

“Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with the following statements about issues the state government has recently considered. -Public schools in Utah should teach about the use of contraceptives.”: strongly agree (13.6%), disagree (15.7%), neither agree nor disagree (12.1%), agree (25.6%), strongly agree (33.1%).

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About Quin Monson

Quin Monson is Associate Professor of Political Science and a Senior Scholar with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
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