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Preferences, Problems and Representation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2015


Scholars studying opinion representation often rely on a survey question that asks about the “most important problem” (MIP) facing the nation. While it is known that MIP responses reflect public priorities, less is known about their connection to policy preferences. This article directly addresses the issue. First, it conceptualizes policy preferences and MIP responses, specifically considering the possibility that the latter may be either policy or outcome based. Second, using aggregate-level data from the United States and the United Kingdom, it then examines the correspondence between public spending preferences and MIP responses over time. The results indicate that MIP responses and spending preferences tap very different things, and that using MIP responses substantially understates the representational relationship between public opinion and policy.

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© The European Political Science Association 2015 

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Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, United Kingdom ( Christopher Wlezien is Hogg Professor of Government, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712-1704 USA ( Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Group of the UK Political Studies Association, Oxford, 2012; the Annual Meeting of the Comparative Agendas Project, Antwerp, 2013; and the Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, 2015. We are grateful to Shaun Bevan, Christian Breunig, Christoffer Green-Pedersen, Bryan Jones, Peter Mortensen and the anonymous reviewers as well as our editor, Vera Troeger, for their constructive comments. Online appendices are available at


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