September 27

By Susan Milligan

Americans are really upset about inflation and almost always list it as the top issue in their minds as they think about voting in the midterm elections in November. That’s a Republican advantage, since polls also show that voters trust the GOP more than Democrats to address the rising cost of living.

And yet, Republicans aren’t running way ahead in those same polls, which show Democrats either ahead or neck and neck with Republican challengers in key races for Congress and governorships.

Despite what they say matters most to them, voters don’t necessarily translate that into casting a ballot, experts say – adding up to some highly competitive races in states where angst over the economy should have Republicans gliding to easy victories.

“Some voters are left in a place of cognitive dissonance,” says Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute. “They have to ultimately choose, but it’s hard to say what is the one issue that’s going to toggle you to one side or the other.”

Siena’s own national poll, for example, found that 9% of voters who said the economy was the most important matter, and trusted the GOP to handle it, were planning to vote for Democrats anyway.

Abortion rights advocates hoped that the unpopularity of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization would spur voters to the polls in protest. And there are some signs that the ruling, which reversed the guaranteed right to an abortion, has indeed had an impact. In scores of states, there has been a large post-Dobbs increase in new voter registrations among women and young voters.

But public opinion surveys – both national and in individual states – show a more perplexing picture, with people placing inflation and the economy at the top of their concerns – but not rewarding Republican candidates with pledges to vote for them.

In a Marist Institute of Public Opinion poll released Tuesday, 40% of Pennsylvania voters cited inflation as their top issue, compared with 16% who said abortion was their chief concern.

And yet, the Democratic statewide candidates are well ahead in the Keystone State, which President Joe Biden won by 1.2 percentage points in 2020. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro has 53% support in the poll, compared to 40% for GOP nominee Doug Mastriano, a vocal opponent of abortion who said in a 2019 radio interview unearthed by NBC on Tuesday that some women should face murder charges for getting abortions.

The Democratic nominee for the open Senate seat, John Fetterman, is also well ahead of his GOP competitor, Mehmet Oz, with 51% support to Oz’s 41% support, Marist found.

An earlier Marist poll of Ohio voters found a similar theme for the Senate race there: While 36% cited inflation as their top concern and 18% listed abortion as a chief issue, the race is essentially deadlocked, with Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan getting 45% of voter support, and anti-abortion GOP nominee J.D. Vance getting 46% support.

In Michigan, abortion has emerged as a bigger issue, according to a poll commissioned by The Detroit Free Press, with 24% of voters saying it was the chief campaign issue – equal to the 24% naming inflation as a top concern. That same poll has incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer – considered ripe for defeat earlier this year – well ahead of her challenger, Republican Tudor Dixon. Whitmer has 55% support, while Dixon has the backing of 39% of voters, the poll found.

In Arizona, 32% of voters cite inflation as the the top concern, compared to 17% who say abortion is the most important issue to them, according to a recent Suffolk University poll. But the survey also has Democratic gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs narrowly ahead of GOP nominee Kari Lake, 46% to 45%. Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, a top target of Republicans, leads GOP nominee Blake Masters, 49% to 42%, the survey found.

The poll was taken before an Arizona judge said a 19th century law prohibiting all abortions except in case where the life of the pregnant woman is at stake can take effect.

And an Emerson College survey in North Carolina – where Democrats have a long-shot chance of picking up a Senate seat – shows a close race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and GOP nominee Ted Budd, even though 41% of voters said the economy would dictate their votes and 12% cited abortion as the driving issue.

That poll has Budd ahead, 45.6% to 43.2% – down from an Emerson poll in April that had Budd enjoying a 50% to 43% edge over Beasley.

Ashley Koning, director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, says voters don’t necessarily make a dispassionate decision about election choices based on issues. Sometimes, a voter simply doesn’t like a candidate and does not necessarily articulate why, she says.

And while abortion may lag behind other issues, it may take on more importance in the voting booth this year because of Dobbs, she says.

“It was a very visceral, gut-check, culture-wars type of issue,” Koning says. “The thing is, human behavior is irrational,” so pollsters can’t simply look at the answers to interview questions and assume those voters will follow through in November, she says.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist institute, notes that the issue question is not a binary choice between the economy and abortion rights. For example, 29% of voters on the Pennsylvania poll said preserving democracy was the most important matter facing their state.

“If you put those numbers together, that becomes a big block of voters,” he says.

Republican candidates and committees have downplayed abortion as an issue since the Dobbs decision, hitting voters hard with ads on inflation, crime and immigration – all issues polls say work to the advantage of the GOP.

And Democrats have broadened their message as well. Biden, for example, held a Rose Garden press conference to tout his administration’s moves on health care costs, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, capping out-of-pocket prescription drug costs to $2,000 a year for Medicare patients, and allowing hearing aids to be sold without a prescription, starting in October.

That still may not be enough for Democrats in a midterm election year where history tends to favor the party out of power, Levy says.