If Daryl Fisher, a supervisor at a group home for young men, could fix one thing in Oklahoma, it would be education.
“Everybody always focuses on kids,” he said in an interview at a gas station in downtown Oklahoma City. “But are we really focusing on kids when we’re opening up more jails, trying to make more room, and not educating them? Are we really focusing on them?”
Data suggest many other Oklahomans share Fisher’s concerns. When people responded to a political attitudes poll conducted for Oklahoma Engaged, 29 percent listed education as the biggest problem facing the state — the top answer in the statewide survey.
But there’s another issue that bubbles just below the surface for Fisher and many other Oklahomans: household income.
“To me, I’m on the bottom. I get paid little-bitty money,” he said. “But it seems like the rich keep getting rich, man, and not spreading nothing around. It’s just hard out here. It’s hard for everybody.”
That response is also consistent with the polling. When asked what’s the biggest problem facing their families, nearly 56.9 percent of Oklahomans said jobs or the economy. Health care was the second most common response at approximately 16.7 percent, while education was a meager 5.6 percent.
Pat Hall, a former campaign manager for Drew Edmondson’s state Attorney General bid and the former director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said educators have been “driving the message” since the nine-day teacher walkout in the spring.
“Every radio station, every TV station, even the cable news stations, and above-the-fold in every newspaper talks about the crisis in education,” Hall said.
Hall said people sometimes name education as their top political concern because they feel pressure to tell pollsters or reporters what they think they’re expected to. Respondents often think education is the “right” answer, he said.
“That's kind of what they hear in church, that's what they hear at the grocery store, that's what they hear at work. They come home... they open that front door, and they’re faced with reality: a sick kid, a sick parent, a sick grand grandparent,” Hall said.
Allyson Shortle, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, said families need to be doing well economically before they start to consider other political issues.
“You could see it sort of as this multifaceted issue where economy will always be important and maybe education will be important every once in a while to your family,” she said.
How this distinction plays out Nov. 6 on Election Day depends on how Oklahoma voters view the economy, Shortle said.
“What we call pocketbook voting versus sociotropic voting,” she said.
Pocketbook voting describes voters’ personal finances. A voter who recently recently lost a job, for example, might be more inclined to vote against incumbents. Sociotropic voting refers to the national economy. A strong national economy tends to benefit incumbents, she said.
“Typically in elections sociotropic voting is what drives people's votes, which is counterintuitive because you think, ‘Oh well, if I'm not doing personally well that should drive my behavior,’” Shortle said.
The 2018 election could be different. One key measure of the economy, unemployment rates, are doing well, but outsider candidates are still effectively pressuring incumbents. Already, 12 incumbent legislators lost primary battles in Oklahoma. Each of them voted against a tax measure to fund a teacher pay raise this spring.
“We have different types of candidates that are being voted for that are still have nothing to do with politics initially,” Shortle said. “People want that non-mainstream candidate.”
For some voters, education and the economy are not mutually exclusive. Business owner Ken Corbin said the state needs both.
“We need to increase our awareness and attach greater importance to education and economic development,” he said in an interview in downtown Enid. “And I think education and a progressive attitude toward that is economic development,” Corbin said.
To Corbin, it’s not a question of either education or the economy. The two work hand-in-hand.