The midterm elections loom less than two months away. Accordingly, this is the first in a series of reviews examining what the public wants political candidates — and elected leaders — to do about the key problems of the day.
Economy and inflation are the top issues
The economy is the baseline issue in most national elections, midterm or presidential. This year provides no exception.
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. 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.
Views of the Current Economy
The importance of the economy in the upcoming election is underlined by measures showing how poor Americans rate economic conditions today. Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index is at one of its lowest points over the past 30 years (although not as low as in 2008). About eight in 10 Americans rate the economy as “only fair” or “poor,” and over two-thirds say the economy is getting worse, not better.
Americans’ low confidence in the economy persists despite the fact that about seven in 10 US adults say it is a good time to find a quality job, among the highest such readings across Gallup’s history of asking this question.
That seeming contradiction — inflation and the economy as major concerns at a time when employment is recognized as being robust — highlights one of the difficulties in assessing what the public wants to be done about the economy. I will have more on that below.
Personal Pain of Inflation Highlights Its Importance as an Issue
Surveys show that Americans are personally feeling the negative effects of inflation, highlighting its potency as an issue this fall. My colleague Jeff Jones recently summarized Gallup data on the personal impact of inflation, noting that “a majority of Americans now say they are experiencing financial hardship from higher prices.” Jeff goes on to review a variety of actions the public is having to take in efforts to deal with the issue, including cutting back on spending and reducing travel.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted earlier this month similarly shows that twice as many Americans say their personal finances have gotten worse over the past year as say they have gotten better. And over seven in 10 report they “have had to cut back on, at least, one necessity or nicety in the past six months to meet their monthly expenses.”
What Should Be Done About It?
Once it is established that inflation and the economy are Americans’ top concerns going into this fall’s elections, the focus turns to the key question: What do voters want elected officials to do about it?
Few Americans would likely know exactly how to lower inflation. But Americans can evaluate and react to solutions put forward by national leaders who are responsible for the issue.
Americans would be most familiar with the actions and promises of the three major entities that are attempting to deal with the economy and inflation — Democrats, Republicans and the Federal Reserve. I’ll look at the public’s views on the policies of each of these in turn.
The Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act
Democrats in Congress are cognizant of the public’s focus on inflation. When it came time to put a label on a revised version of the Build Back Better Act, Democratic leaders creatively came up with the title “Inflation Reduction Act.” (The legislation was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Aug. 16.)
The act contains a number of components, including increased spending on climate change, lowering drug prices, increased funding for the IRS, extending Affordable Care Act subsidies and increasing taxes on corporations.
The name of the bill is a tribute to the attention paid to voters’ concerns. But saying the legislation will reduce inflation does not mean it will do so. In fact, Americans seem to approve of the bill in general while they remain doubtful about its ultimate effectiveness.
Many Americans, at least initially, indicated they were not fully familiar with the Inflation Reduction Act. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in August just before the bill was passed found that about six in 10 Americans had never heard of or were not familiar with it. A CBS News poll conducted just after the Inflation Reduction Act was signed into law found that 34% of registered voters said they had heard or read a lot about it.
Initial research on the legislation, however, shows Americans have a more positive than negative reaction to it. Every poll I have reviewed finds plurality support among those with an opinion. Additionally, polls show support for many of the specific components of the legislation, including drug pricing reforms and actions related to climate change. These findings suggest that the public is generally in sync with many of the specifics of the bill (and of course, with its intent).
But polls also show that Americans are not convinced the bill will fulfill its stated promise. Surveys that ask about the Inflation Reduction Act in various ways find only a minority of those interviewed saying the act will help curb inflation, although — depending on how the question is worded — as many as a quarter of Americans in these polls say they have no opinion.
Other Proposals to Reduce Inflation
Democrats control Congress and the presidency, allowing Republicans to adopt the time-honored position of blaming incumbents for the nation’s economic woes.
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. 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 addition to criticizing Democrats’ actions on the economy, Republicans have addressed the issue themselves. Earlier this summer, for example, the Republican House Ways and Means Committee proposed a number of steps to fight inflation: “Cut Wasteful Spending, Lower Taxes, Boost Investment, Cut Red Tape, and Unleash American Energy.”
In reference to these suggestions, a majority of US adults say the amount of federal income taxes they pay is too high but also favor higher taxes on upper-income Americans and on corporations. Americans approve of the idea of boosting investment in certain things such as infrastructure and alternative energy. I’m sure Americans like the idea of cutting red tape in principle, although there isn’t much direct research on that.
The “cut wasteful spending” recommendation represents a recurring theme for the GOP. Republican Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, as one example, argues that the nation is in “an inflation crisis brought on by reckless spending coming out of Washington.”
There is evidence that Americans are open to the idea of less government involvement and spending as a cure for inflation:
- A Penn State poll conducted in May found that reducing government spending was the most frequently chosen option as “the best way for the federal government to fight inflation.”
- An April poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies told respondents that “government spending went from $4.4 trillion in 2019 to $6.8 trillion in 2021” and found 73% agreement that this increase has been a major cause of higher prices.
- And, on the broader issue of government intervention in daily life, Gallup finds that after a shift in attitudes in 2020 during the COVID crisis, Americans have tilted toward saying that the government is doing too much to solve problems (a Republican position) as opposed to not enough (a Democratic position).
Increased federal spending tends to result in an increased federal deficit. But the deficit itself remains an issue about which Americans have mixed feelings. Only 1% of Americans have mentioned the deficit as the most important problem facing the nation in recent Gallup polls — far lower than has been the case at earlier points in history. In July, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that the federal budget deficit was fifth in importance on a list of eight issues (based on those who said it was “very important”) when Americans were asked how important each issue was to their midterm vote. .
This does not mean the deficit could not be made into a potent issue by savvy candidates. Third-party candidate Ross Perot made the federal deficit the centerpiece of his two presidential campaigns, garnering 19% of the popular vote in 1992. And earlier this year, for example, NBC News polling showed that over two-thirds of voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who wants to control inflation by reducing the deficit. Maybe not surprisingly, President Biden himself said earlier this year, “We need to keep reducing the federal deficit, which will help ease price pressures.”
The Federal Reserve
The Federal Reserve’s actions are critically important to the trajectory of inflation. It is not clear at this point how much of an election issue the Fed will be. Although Federal Reserve governors are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the Fed in theory operates independently of elected officials. We do know that the Fed and its chair receive mixed ratings from Americans. Gallup polling in April found that current Fed Chair Jerome Powell inspires only average confidence levels from the public — about the same as Biden and Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress do. And 2021 Gallup polling showed that slightly more Americans rated the job being done by the Federal Reserve as “only fair” or “poor” than rated it as “excellent” or “good.”
The Federal Reserve is balancing two goals in relation to the economy — taming inflation while attempting to maintain economic growth and vitality. As Axios recently summarized, the challenge facing Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell is “to communicate absolute resolve to bring inflation down, while not setting the Fed on a course that will tank the global economy. He faces a paradox in that the more he leans into one of those goals, the higher the risk that he fails in the other.”
Does the public favor one of these goals over the other? I found one survey that asked this question directly. A poll of registered voters conducted in September 2015 by the Public Policy Polling group showed that, given a choice, 55% of voters said the Federal Reserve should focus on “creating more jobs and higher wages” while 38% said it should prioritize “ensuring that inflation does not get any higher.”
Previous Gallup research has also highlighted the importance of government actions relating to jobs. Thus, from the public’s perspective, while inflation is a major concern, keeping a robust economy and job market is just as important.
The economy and inflation are, at this point, the most important issues Americans will take into account when voting in November’s midterm elections.
Congressional Democrats have addressed this issue with their recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act. The data show Americans tend to approve of the bill and are positive about many of its specific components. Americans are, however, initially skeptical that it will reduce inflation.
Americans would in theory like to see the government reduce federal spending. At the same time, the public has endorsed many of the huge spending bills enacted since 2020 with the onset of COVID, suggesting some caution since Americans like the results of government spending even while evidencing trepidation about it in principle.
In sum, if elected officials follow public opinion on the economy and inflation, they will consider the following: 1) Keep assuring voters that they (elected officials) are making every effort to focus on and improve the economic situation; 2) continue to promote specific policies that will lower energy costs; 3) reduce federal spending and/or explain how spending relates to concerns over the deficit; 4) help the economy by investing in policies that produce alternative energy sources and that help mitigate climate change; and 5) do what is possible to ensure that government actions aimed at controlling inflation at the same time maintain employment and economic growth.
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