for example, What is the most important problem facing the country today? that people answer with any response they wish. By this salience measure, the environment ranks low. CBS News/New York Times asked its "most important problem" question ten times between January 1994 and January 1995, and in only one poll did the issue register at even 1 percent. In the early August 1995 question, the interviewers recorded mentions of 26 different issues as "the most important problem." The environment was not among them.
A poll done by Peter Hart Research for the National Wildlife Federation in December 1994 also shows that the environment has been eclipsed by other issues. Those who reported voting in 1994 were asked which two or three issues were important to them in making their choices. The environment was cited by just 6 percent—ranking behind crime (at 24 percent), health care (21 percent), the economy-recession (16 percent), high taxes (15 percent), unemployment-jobs (9 percent), education (8 percent), and efficient government (7 percent). Hart Research then asked those who had not cited the environment why they did not do so: 35 percent said other issues were more urgent; 23 percent, that the candidates did not discuss the environment; 10 percent, that the Clinton administration was doing a good job on the issue. Only 8 percent said that enough had been done for the environment already.
The property that Robert Cameron Mitchell contrasts to salience, the strength of public opinion, can be measured by poll questions asking how serious a problem is, how we view government efforts to regulate the activity, and how much we want to spend on it.
Roper Starch Worldwide asks Americans whether environmental pollution is a "very serious threat these days to citizens like yourself, a moderately serious threat, not much of a threat, or no threat at all." In May 1994, 47 percent called environmental pollution a very serious threat, 39 percent a moderately serious threat, 11 percent not much of a threat, and 2 percent none. A decade earlier, the percentages were roughly the same. This would seem to suggest enormous concern. In fact the poll results merely show that many people do not like pollution. To put the numbers in perspective, in 1994, 77 percent said crime was a very serious threat, 72 percent said illegal drugs were, and 60 percent said drunken drivers on the road were a very serious threat. Many polls like the ones above confirm the view that other problems are far more urgent than the environment for Americans today.
Survey researchers naturally want to explore just how far the public is prepared to go in terms of taxing and spending and regulation to improve the environment, but it is extremely hard to get at this kind of information in the abstract. Hypothetical questions are almost always a problem in opinion research. Much of the public does not think hypothetically about policy choices. It posits broad values.