Voters Eye the Economy as They Ready Their Ballots

October 6, 2022

Ballots Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash

With Election Day just a little more than a month away, and some voters already casting their ballots, the same issue that topped Americans’ concerns at the beginning of the year is still number one today: the economy. But polls show a handful of other issues are chipping away at its dominance.

Some Early Voting Now Under Way

Folks have already cast their ballots in some states.  In-person early voting got going in Illinois and Michigan the last week of September, while Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming started the week prior. Absentee ballots have already gone out in some states, as well.

Jessica Taylor, U.S. Senate & Governors Editor at The Cook Political Report, tells Political IQ that the patterns we saw during the height of the pandemic in 2020 are likely to continue.

“I think you’re going to see Democrats who are eager to get it over with, they’re going to check that box and vote early. But again, we still see Republicans waiting until day-of in many cases.”

She adds that while an “October Surprise” could still potentially sway opinions, “If you really are a diehard base voter one way or the other, you probably weren’t a swing voter anyway.”

Economic Concerns Still Tops

According to a new Monmouth University poll, a whopping 82% of Americans ranked inflation as an extremely or very important issue, compared with 56% who ranked abortion as a top worry.

“The economy, in polls that I’ve seen, still remains the number one issue,” Taylor confirms. “The lead has narrowed, but it’s still the most important issue.”

This ought to be to the advantage of the party out of power—the Republicans. It certainly doesn’t help Democrats that gas prices, which were on a 99-day decline, have chosen the past week to start ticking back up—from a few cents per gallon in some areas to as much as 60 cents in others.

Abortion Remains First Runner-up

Echoing the Monmouth poll Taylor says, “In certain states I do think that abortion has risen up there since the Dobbs decision.”

On June 24 the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health to overturn Roe v Wade and the Constitutional right to an abortion.

Ever since, Democratic candidates have been pushing a “choice is on the ballot” campaign.

There are a record number of abortion policy questions on state ballots, as well. For example, California, Michigan and Vermont voters will decide whether to include abortion protections in their state constitutions. Conversely, Kentuckians will decide whether there should explicitly not be a right to abortion or related state funding in its state constitution.

Republicans Believe They Can Capitalize on Crime

In recent weeks Republicans have moved some of their focus away from economic issues to also sell the notion that Democrats are soft on crime.

But is this a winning strategy? A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found the economy, abortion and inflation, in that order, are the top three issues for voters. Crime ranked seventh, trailing behind education & school, immigration and climate change.

“I mean, that’s a national poll, and I do see it having an effect and at least moving numbers in some swing states,” says Taylor. “I think it’s particularly had resonance in Pennsylvania and in Wisconsin’s Senate races.”

Currently, Cook Political Report rates both of these states’ Senate races at toss-ups.

Taylor adds that focusing on crime is not about shoring up the Republican base but about wooing swing voters. “The suburban women in many ways,” she specifies. “Abortion is a major issue with many of those voters, too, but they moved to the suburbs because they wanted to keep their families safe. And if there are increasing incidents in their area, that’s something that has the potential to sway their vote.”

So, Will Women Decide the Election?

Deep-red Kansas caused an uproar in August when voters turned out to defeat a referendum that would have effectively ended abortion rights there. Soon after, reports surfaced that more than 70% of those who registered to vote in Kansas following the Dobbs ruling were women.

After the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn abortion was first leaked in May, ten states that released registration data—Kansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, Idaho, Alabama, New Mexico and Maine—reported an average 35% increase in newly-registered female voters compared with the month before the leak. That’s versus an average 9% increase in newly-registered male voters during that same period.

Party affiliation was not reported, and registration, of course, does not determine how anyone will vote.

In September the Leadership Now Project commissioned a survey from Emerson College polling. Of the independent women voters in five key swing states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—a plurality (43%) rated the economy as their top issue, with abortion access coming in a distant second at only 9%.

However, when asked how they would cast their ballot, the polling tightened considerably—although the economy remained top priority: the candidate who focuses on economic issues was chosen by 56% of these independent women while 44% chose the candidate who prioritized abortion access.

Trump Remains a Factor

“Republican leaders would like nothing more than to just talk about the economy and to hammer home against Biden and the Democrats, and that’s the best message that they have,” says Taylor. “When you have President Trump inserting himself, and then candidates that have courted his endorsement and still need his support and don’t want to anger him, that’s problematic because they’re having to weigh in on other issues.”

For instance, over the weekend Trump launched a direct attack on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), saying he had a “death wish” for supporting “Democrat sponsored bills.” In the same post on the former President’s social media site, Truth Social, he also took a swing at McConnell’s wife with an apparent racial slur.

It quickly became a distraction that other Republican leaders, like NRSC Chair Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who would have much rather been talking about Hurricane Ian recovery efforts, had to try to answer for.

“Those voters who are frustrated with Trump, didn’t like him, voted for Biden because maybe they saw him as the lesser of two evils which is something I hear a lot in focus groups,” Taylor notes, “are you going to vote for a Republican that sided with Trump, especially given that it looks increasingly like he will run again? That’s sort of thrown a wrench into their game plan, where you can make Trump more of an issue than you would another former President.”

McConnell Now Sees “50-50” Chance of Taking Back the Senate

The former President’s lambaste followed McConnell’s veiled jab last month at “candidate quality,” referring to Trump’s endorsed picks in what were then shaping up to be tough races for the GOP.

At the time McConnell said, “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood that the House flips than the Senate.”

He has since changed his tune a bit. On Friday he said he believes the GOP now has a “50-50 shot” of taking back the Senate majority. “It’s going to be really, really close either way, in my view,” he told reporters.

“We had it 50-50 even in August when Democrats were kind of on a sugar high,” says Taylor. “They were outspending their opponents. They had the Dobbs decision. President Biden and Democrats in Congress had a spate of legislation that was successful. And now there is a little more parity.”

As for the House, Cook still sees Republicans as “favored” to take over, but the margins have tightened.

“A few months ago we were talking about 20 to 30 seats. Now we figure it will be less than that, somewhere in the 10 to 20 range,” says Taylor.

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