With Election Day a little less than two weeks away, Spectrum News is taking a look at three of the top issues or factors shaping this political season: abortion, Donald Trump and a changing voting demographic.
But after traveling to three battleground states and talking with countless voters, the most-cited concern of this midterm election is not just an American problem, but a global one: inflation.
While once-skyrocketing prices on home goods and gasoline have stabilized somewhat in recent months, inflation is far higher than it’s been in decades. Democrats are now forced to play defense.
The U.S. is not alone in seeing historically high inflation. According to the International Monetary Fund, average consumer prices have increased more year-to-year in the United Kingdom and Germany than in America at 9.1% and 8.5% compared to 8.1%, respectively.
The reasons for the global economic downturn are complex, and include the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on supply chains, shifting consumer demand and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted global food and energy supply.
Still, polls show that Americans remain split on whether the issue was caused by President Joe Biden or by factors outside of his control, which Republicans are playing to their advantage.
“In the U.S., I think it’s a more complicated picture because Americans would tend to blame the government in power for any sort of negative economic news,” Yoshiko Herrera, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Spectrum News. “But on the other hand, there are certain things in the U.S. that are not bad. And, for example, the unemployment rate is still very low. Economic growth is slower, but not as bad as it could be. So there’s different ways that people could understand it.”
Biden has recently touted his administration’s progress on reducing the national deficit, a message he attributed to his own policies in the leadup to the midterm elections even as Republicans point to those same provisions as triggering high inflation.
“Today we have further proof that we’re rebuilding the economy in a responsible way. Today, my administration announced that this year, the deficit fell by $1.4 trillion, the largest one-year drop in American history,” the president said from the White House last week. “This record deficit reduction includes the cost of my student loan plan, and everything else we paid for.”
But it’s not entirely true that Biden is as responsible for the economic upswing as he might profess.
Budget figures released last Friday by the Treasury Department revealed dueling visions about what it means to be financially responsible: Biden can rightly claim that the budget deficit for fiscal 2022 plunged $1.4 trillion from the prior year; critics can use the same report to say that forgiving education loans pushed up the federal debt by roughly $400 billion as the government booked the full expense.
Regardless, the economy, jobs and inflation are reliably polled as the most important issues voters will keep in mind as they head into the midterm elections, though Republicans tend to rank them higher than Democrats.
The topic played out in Pennsylvania’s first and only Senate debate on Tuesday, where Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz faced off against current lieutenant general John Fetterman, who used a closed-captioning device to help him process the words he heard as he recovers from a stroke.
The stakes of the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey are huge: It represents Democrats’ best chance to flip a Senate seat this year — and could determine party control of the chamber and the future of Biden’s agenda.
While largely backing Biden throughout the debate, Fetterman said in part: “He needs to do more about supporting and fighting about inflation.”
Fetterman also slammed Oz’s opposition to setting a federal minimum wage at $15 per hour, which the former called a “disgrace.”
“That’s the most American bargain, that if you work full time, you should be able to live in dignity,” Fetterman said. Oz, in turn, stressed his belief in the free market and said extracting natural gas in the state could help drive up wages naturally.
“I believe if we can unleash the energy beneath our feet here in Pennsylvania, there’d be plenty of money to go around,” Oz said.
Pennsylvania voters who spoke with Spectrum News largely agreed that the economy and cost of living are among the top issues they will keep in mind while casting ballots this November.
“I just looked at my 401K. I want to retire one day, so I’m crying now,” Terri Lynn, a Pennsylvania voter, told Spectrum News.
“I have a thing on this with gas prices and how we are, I think, limiting our energy sources,” Pennsylvanian Craig Laubach told Spectrum News.
Republicans in other states are following the same thread as Oz, focusing not on the hot-button issue of abortion – as Democrats may have hoped – but instead taking aim at Biden’s economic and border policies.
On Sunday, the economy took center stage in Washington’s debate between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley as they argued over abortion, crime and inflation, with Murray defending both her and Biden’s records on the issue.
Murray said she is focused on lowering costs for families and supported President Biden’s inflation reduction act.
“That sounds like a Washington, D.C., answer to me,” Smiley said. She said the Biden administration is also seeking to hire 87,000 employees for the Internal Revenue Service who will be “coming after our businesses.”
“I will make sure 87,000 IRS agents do not come after you,” Smiley said.
Overall, this midterm season has shaped up to be a careful balancing act for the Democrats, whose priorities include protecting access to abortions; tackling voting rights; promoting construction of domestic factories; addressing climate change; forgiving student debt and more.
With Republicans looking increasingly likely to take back the House of Representatives after the Nov. 8 elections, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has already signaled that he would push for spending cuts.
“You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt,” McCarthy said in an interview last week with Punchbowl News. “There comes a point in time where, OK, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior. We’re not just going to keep lifting your credit card limit, right?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.