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Still the economy, stupid: Democrats urge Biden to focus as Republicans surge

Democratic strategists are urging President Joe Biden to stop the shift in the polls toward the Republicans with a stronger message on the economy.

The economy and inflation are the top issues for voters three weeks out from the midterm elections, as polls show a growing share of the public concerned about rising costs. Forecasts indicate Democrats’ leads are evaporating as their small congressional majorities hang in the balance.

Biden had hoped that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer would animate voters through the fall. The president raised the issue just last week, promising to codify federal abortion rights if Democrats in Senate boost their majority next month. But tempering the enthusiasm that surged in the wake of the July ruling is an entrenched economic reality showing few signs of improvement.


Now the party risks losing congressional seats, legislatures, and states once considered safe as Democrats lose ground on economic issues.

In response, veteran Democratic strategists are raising the alarm, asserting in a joint public memo that “what we have to do … is end on a strong economic argument.”

Written by Patrick Gaspard, president of the Center for American Politics; pollsters Stanley Greenberg and Celinda Lake; and liberal strategist and a senior White House aide under President Bill Clinton, Mike Lux, the memo concedes that “no Democratic candidate should stop talking about abortion.”

“But going down the stretch, we need to make sure our closing message also talks about the cost of living, inflation and the economy,” the authors argue, writing that “rising costs will beat us if we avoid the issue.”

Yearly inflation ending in September came in at 8.2%, while core inflation, which strips out food and energy prices, rose to 6.6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both numbers came in above projections.

The White House has touted its efforts to bring down costs for consumers, including through the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill that includes a prescription drug price cap, among other benefits. Biden has also announced a student debt relief program and efforts to reduce gas prices.

But cutting short the White House’s victory lap last month is a sinking economic reality that the president is struggling to beat back.

“No question, President Biden and Democrats have their work cut out for themselves on making a case regarding the economy,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies told the Washington Examiner. “Most Americans expect the economy to get worse over the next year, they are overwhelmingly focused on the rising cost of living, and fully 57% disapprove of the job that the president is doing handling the economy.”

And with barely two weeks to go, inflation has become the top concern for voters as polls show Republicans inching ahead of Democrats on the generic ballot.

Republicans hold a 6 percentage point lead among registered voters, 50%, compared to 44% for Democrats, according to recent Monmouth University polling. Republicans are also more inclined than Democrats to say they are “extremely motivated” to vote, 64%-59%.

The survey shows inflation as the primary issue for voters, up 9 percentage points in October to 46% from 37% last month. Among voters with no party preference, 37% rank the issue as their foremost concern.

In a recent video, liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, acknowledged the “stress that people live under” as something that “we don’t discuss enough.”

“People worry about how they’re going to pay their healthcare bills. … They worry about how they’re going to get by on wages, which in many cases are not adequate,” Sanders said, picking up a populist message that has largely fallen out of favor since Biden’s victory in 2020.

Democrats, who won control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, have instead leaned on their success in passing infrastructure, climate and healthcare legislation, spending on semiconductor manufacturing, and more.

Fewer than one-third of voters say Biden is giving sufficient attention to the issues most important to American families, according to the Monmouth survey, conducted Oct. 13-17 with 808 adults and a plus or minus 5.2 percentage point margin of error.

The damage is showing up across key races for Democrats across the country, with the Cook Political Reports House editor, David Wasserman, noting that many candidates in lean-Democrat races are “teetering on the edge.”

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman now finds himself in a statistical tie against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, according to recent polling by AARP conducted by Biden’s pollster John Anzalone and former Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio.

As Democrats’ forecasts darken, Biden has picked up his message on the economy, adding an economic bent to his warnings of the dangers of so-called MAGA Republicans, including the claim that “mega-MAGA trickle-down politics” will “crash the economy.”

In remarks at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington on Monday, Biden said his administration had created 10 million new jobs, brought employment to a 50-year low, and delivered a “Made in America” manufacturing boom. Addressing inflation, the president blamed the rising cost of living on “Putin’s war in Ukraine and the global pandemic.”

It’s not clear whether the president’s message will resonate.

According to Greenberg, former President Bill Clinton’s pollster ahead of the 1994 Democratic collapse, voters don’t like hearing about the president’s wins. He also suggested that Republicans are winning the economic messaging war.


“[Republicans are] hitting us on crime and border and inflation. … That has huge power,” Greenberg told West Wing Playbook. “And we have the self-satisfied message of how much we’ve accomplished rather than being focused on what is happening to people.”

Democrats face long odds as they work to persuade voters in the election’s final days.

“Given Americans’ current attitudes regarding the economy, it’s a tall lift for Democrats to make the case that things are heading in the right direction,” said Newhouse.

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