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Midterm voter inflation frustration

As voters prepare to head to the polls or mail or drop off their ballots for the Nov. 8 midterm elections, many will weigh where candidates stand on this year’s record-high consumer prices.

A flurry of new polls shows that for a majority of residents, the state of the economy (and more specifically, inflation) is top of mind as Election Day rapidly approaches. The concern among voters follows months of steep prices on everything from gas to groceries, as well as stock market volatility, caused by multiple COVID-19 pandemic-related economic disruptions.

In a New York Times/Siena College poll released on Oct. 17, the economy ranked as the top concern among likely voters, with 26% saying it was the most important problem facing the country. The next highest was inflation, with 18% of likely voters listing it as the top issue. Other issues, such as abortion and crime, all sat at 5% or below.


“The economy is the baseline issue in most national elections, midterm or presidential. This year provides no exception,” Frank Newport, a senior scientist at Gallup who analyzes political polls, wrote in late September. “Data from Gallup and other polls show that the economy — and inflation in particular — are Americans’ top concerns leading into the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

“We see this in open-ended questions asking about top problems,” Newport said. “And we see it in polls that query voters directly on their election concerns, all showing that inflation and/or the economy rise to the top of the list of potential issues.”

In another poll released this month, 82% of respondents rated inflation as either an extremely or very important issue for the federal government to address. “Economic issues are a bigger factor in this year’s midterm elections than concerns about rights and democracy,” researchers at Monmouth University wrote on Oct. 3.

With inflation so far largely resisting the Federal Reserve’s efforts to cool prices, and with a possible recession on the horizon, it could spell trouble for the Democrats, who are fighting to hold slim majorities in Congress. Historically, midterm elections have also seen sitting presidents lose seats in Congress.

“The midterms are generally viewed as a referendum on incumbent leadership,” Michael Taylor, an analyst at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute, wrote in August. “We believe voter dissatisfaction about sticky inflation and a slowing economy is likely to register against the majority party in November.”

While the control of the Senate is considered a toss-up at the moment, Republicans maintain the lead in the House, polls show, and overall, the party has a higher favorability with voters.

If the GOP takes the majority in either chamber, President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda would more than likely screech to a halt, and Republicans are already planning to launch investigations into his administration that could uncover damaging information ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

“Because the congressional map favors the GOP, Democrats need to do more than ‘keep it close’ in order to hold onto their House majority. One roadblock for them is that the issue picture favors Republicans,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

The GOP appears to have the advantage when it comes to handling economic issues, recent polls show. In a September poll, Gallup found that voters have more faith in the Republicans’ ability to “keep the country prosperous” than in the Democrats. “The 51% of U.S. adults who believe the GOP is the better choice ties the highest on record for the party,” Gallup said.

“Democrats control Congress and the presidency, allowing Republicans to adopt the time-honored position of blaming incumbents for the nation’s economic woes,” Newport, the Gallup analyst, wrote more recently.

“This political tack on the part of the GOP is supported by available data showing that despite the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats haven’t benefited in being more widely seen as the best party to handle the economy,” Newport wrote. “Republicans maintain the edge across a number of recent polls when voters are asked which party can do the best job on economic issues.”

In a recent Associated Press-NORC poll, 39% of registered voters said they trusted Republicans to do a better job of handling the economy, as opposed to 29% who chose Democrats. Nearly 20% said neither.

Inflation has been hammering consumers since earlier this year, when a combination of supply chain problems and the Russian invasion of Ukraine drove up demand and caused price hikes on a wide range of goods and services. This year’s hot labor market, as well as previous pandemic stimulus checks from the federal government, added fuel to the fire by providing people with more money to spend.

In March, the Federal Reserve started hiking interest rates in an attempt to dampen that purchasing power and followed up with several more aggressive increases in the months after. U.S. financial markets have responded with volatility, entering bear market territory in June as the Fed approved a rare rate increase of three-quarters of a percentage point.

Though inflation showed some initial signs of slowing over the summer, it remains high, and the U.S. central bank is expected to continue raising rates despite the risk of unleashing a recession.

Gas prices, which dropped down in recent months after hitting record highs in June, also appear to be creeping back up. The national average for regular gas was $3.854 on Oct. 19, nearly 20 cents higher than the same time last month, according to AAA. The recent increase followed OPEC+’s decision earlier this month to cut oil production drastically, further limiting supply.

Biden’s approval ratings have dipped this year as consumer prices have spiked, polls show, “[f]urther dampening Democrats’ prospects,” researchers at Monmouth University wrote. “Currently, 38% approve of the job Biden is doing while 54% disapprove,” they said. “The president gets an 84% approval rating from his fellow Democrats, but only 28% among independents and 6% among Republicans.”

Monmouth also found that Biden got low marks from voters when it came to his handling of inflation, which “is not helping the Democratic cause.”

“Only 3 in 10 Americans approve of the job Biden has done on the nation’s top concern — inflation (30%) — as well as other concerns that Republicans are focused on — i.e., crime (32%) and immigration (31%),” Monmouth said.

In his Wells Fargo analysis, Taylor noted that “President Biden’s current approval rating mirrors President [Donald] Trump’s in 2018 when Republicans lost 40 House seats.”

“High inflation and an economy teetering on recession could persuade disenchanted voters to show up in November,” Taylor added.

Though it doesn’t necessarily correlate to higher turnout on Election Day, voter enthusiasm was higher than normal this summer, according to a June poll by Gallup. Nearly half of all respondents (48%) said they had given “quite a lot” of thought to the election. “This compares with no more than 37% saying the same in the summer months before the 1998 through 2014 midterm elections,” Gallup said.

“Gallup analysis has found that the more enthusiastic party is not necessarily the one with higher turnout but does tend to correspond with the party that ultimately wins the most seats,” Gallup said, adding that “Republicans’ 10-point enthusiasm edge this year is a generally positive sign for the GOP.”

In the current economic climate, experts say candidates of both parties need effective messaging related to inflation and the economy to win voters — especially independents, who can determine the outcome of narrow races, and who list inflation among their top concerns in several polls.

Most Republicans say inflation, crime, and immigration are the most important issues, while Democrats place preference on issues such as climate change, gun control, and abortion, according to Monmouth.

“However, the only issue which more than 3 in 4 independents place high importance on is inflation,” Monmouth found. “Additionally, independents are more concerned about overall economic issues along with crime and immigration than they are by other issues.”


“Democrats are all over the place when it comes to their key issues,” said Murray, the head of Monmouth’s polling team. “This makes it difficult for the party to create a cohesive messaging strategy to motivate its base. Republicans, on the other hand, just have to hammer away at rising prices and ‘the wolf is at the door’ to get their voters riled up.”

“A major problem for Democrats is their base messaging doesn’t hold as much appeal for independents as the GOP issue agenda does,” Murray added. “Even though truly persuadable independents are a rather small group these days, this small difference can have a major impact given the expectation that congressional control will hinge on a handful of very close contests.”

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