This post was first published by The Huffington Post on March 7, 2016.
With media coverage of the Republican presidential primary reaching a fever pitch, tens of thousands of voters in major upcoming contests may find their biggest issues lost in the shuffle.
Republicans in 10 states are set to cast their ballots between March 8 and 15, including key delegate-rich areas like Michigan and Florida. But analysis of petition data from Change.org shows that for many in these influential states, the political conversation doesn't reflect their top concerns.
To get a clearer picture of the conversations people are having, I analyzed the most-signed petitions in several key upcoming primary states over the past six months. Let's break down the data and see what conversations the campaigns are missing in a few major states: Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio.
Mississippi - Voting March 8
Mississippi's top five petitions are dominated by demands to protect the Mississippi state flag, which became a hot topic in the wake of the June 2015 mass shooting at South Carolina's Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Nearly 15,000 people signed a petition urging Mississippi's political leaders to defend the use of the Confederate Flag on their state banner. Another rallied 22,000 supporters of the Mississippi state flag.
While media coverage of Confederate iconography debates wound down months ago, Mississippians are still actively rallying around petitions to their leadership. How will residents respond to candidates who decline to engage on an issue so prominent among Mississippians?
Florida - Voting March 15
Florida's petitions are as diverse as its population, offering candidates multiple avenues to engage directly with citizen interests. Twenty-four thousand people have signed a petition urging Florida to enact the "Pastor Protection Law," which would grant an exemption from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies to local clergy. Religious freedom bills are increasingly popular among conservative petitioners.
Floridians are also rallying behind a 20,000 signature petition to allow open carry of firearms statewide, a trending national issue. But amidst these strong conservative statements is a confounding fact - rounding out the top petitions in Florida is a call for former Daily Show host Jon Stewart to moderate a presidential debate. Are Floridians showing their sense of humor?
Illinois - Voting March 15
Illinois is the focus of several campaigns' Midwestern strategies, and its most popular petitions reflect its unique position geographically and ideologically. Twenty-two thousand people in Illinois have called on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to legalize medical cannabis. Another petition addresses state support for the Early Intervention Program, an Illinois program that provides resources to families with disabled children. With the focus tightly on state issues, can candidates crack the code and connect with Illinoisans where they live?
Ohio - Voting March 15
Ohio's unique blend of social and fiscal conservatism is on display in its most prominent petitions. More than 52,000 people have joined a petition calling for mandatory drug testing for all Ohioans receiving public assistance. As with all of the petitions mentioned here, the conversation kicked off by natives of the Buckeye State has become a major but rarely covered aspect of retail politics in Ohio.
Justice issues are also on display among Ohioans, with 16,700 demanding mandatory life imprisonment for any offender convicted of killing a police K9 unit. Petitions calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood and supporting concealed carry laws have garnered thousands of signatures and comments. Will Ohio's strong conservative petitions change the outlines of the Republican presidential contest?
What it All Means
After a split decision in four Super Saturday contests, the remaining candidates seek to recast the narrative of this presidential contest. But there is another way: candidates can and should engage with petitions that residents in important primary states have self-selected as important to their community and their values.
Hundreds of petitions from Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Mississippi reflect a yearning by people all across America to raise their voices on issues that matter to them. It's up to candidates and the national media to turn those passions and voices into dominant themes in the ongoing Republican race for the nomination.
Check back next week when we take a look at Change.org data in states with upcoming Democratic primary contests - and make your voice heard on issues you care about by starting a petition now.
Follow Max Burns on Twitter at @TheMaxBurns