Adam Wollner and Alex Roarty

Inflation spikes lead to rising voter concerns. Will Biden be blamed?

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans alike have long expected next year’s midterm elections to hinge on the state of the coronavirus pandemic, the job market and former President Donald Trump’s influence on the GOP. Now, they see a new potential top issue emerging: inflation. Political strategists from both parties are closely watching the price of everyday goods, which continue to rise at higher-than-expected rates, preparing to grapple with a pocketbook issue that could resonate with voters in a way it hasn’t in decades. Republicans in particular see the issue as a potent one for the upcoming midterm campaign, increasingly putting rising inflation rates at the heart of their attacks on the economic policies of President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress. “I believe the economic challenges the country faces, with inflation leading them, will be the single biggest concern to voters this cycle,” said Don Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to House Republican leadership. “It’s already there, and likely that it will only intensify further going forward.” Not everyone is so certain. Economists say they don’t know if prices will continue to increase, and even if they do, political operatives say it’s unclear whether voters will blame the president. But veteran Democrats concede that it’s an issue they are now watching closely for the first time since the rampant inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the latest in a string of challenges facing the Biden White House and the party. “It’s like an old nightmare girlfriend from 40 years ago who shows up on your front steps,” said James Carville, chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Carville labeled the political threat of inflation “not an emergency” but a “matter of some concern.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released data showing that prices have risen 5.4% over the last year, according to the consumer price index, which tracks the cost of housing, food, energy and other items. It was the largest year-over-year rise in 13 years, well above the Federal Reserve’s target of a 2% rate of increase. That has led to growing fears in economic and political circles that inflation could continue into 2022. The data was also released the same week that concerns about supply-chain disruptions at the nation’s ports crested, with the Biden administration announcing that the Port of Los Angeles would operate 24 hours a day to help relieve the logjam there. White House officials have for months fended off questions about their concern over inflation, saying the price increases are only temporary and mostly a consequence of the economy returning to normal after the worst of the pandemic. But polling has shown that voters are worried about rising prices. A Pew Research Center survey from late last month found that 63% of Americans said they were “very concerned” about rising prices for food and consumer goods, topping the other economic issues they were asked about. And according to a Fox News poll from mid-September, 82% of voters said they were concerned about inflation and higher prices, more than any other issue, including the pandemic and situation in Afghanistan. Republican operatives argue that the longer inflation remains a concern, the more likely voters are to naturally blame the party in power in Washington. They say that will especially be the case if Biden’s job performance rating on the economy as a whole remains low. Less than 40% of voters approved of Biden’s handling of the economy in a new Quinnipiac University poll, while two-thirds of voters said the economy was going in the wrong direction in the latest Politico/Morning Consult survey. “If inflation continues to rise, I think it’s very problematic for Democrats. It’s something we haven’t seen in 40 years,” said Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster. “The longer this goes on, the more it impacts the economy and the mood of voters. Voters are nervous.” Republicans have heavily criticized Biden and the Democrats on a variety of fronts over the past nine months, ranging from immigration to crime to Afghanistan. But inflation has been among the most prominently featured issues in their early paid media campaigns. The NRCC, CLF, and its associated nonprofit group, American Action Network, have all aired TV or digital ads over the last three months blaming vulnerable House Democrats and their policies for rising prices. Officials with those groups say they expect that messaging to continue heading into the election year. “This is going to be an issue all the way through to the midterms,” NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer said in an interview. “This will come back to bite them at the ballot box in 2022.” While Republicans say inflation could have particular resonance with independents, suburbanites and seniors, they argue the issue is uniquely consequential because it directly affects Americans across the board. “You’ll hear candidates talking about it over and over and over again, because it’s a way to make the consequences of failed leadership real to average voters,” said John Ashbrook, a Republican strategist and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Some Democratic pollsters say they are now asking voters about inflation for the first time in recent memory, while other operatives say the issue comes up organically in focus groups. And they acknowledge that average voters are noticing the rising prices and are concerned about them. But Democrats also say that if the rate of inflation starts to decrease over the next several months, the issue could become a moot one for the public by November 2022. And even if it does continue to increase, they argue that Biden and congressional Democrats aren’t necessarily going to receive the brunt of the blame. According to the recent Fox poll, of the 49% of voters who disapproved of Biden’s overall job performance, just 3% cited inflation as the specific reason. “Taxes going up is a very simple thing to understand, and something people can see in their property tax bill,” said Anna Greenberg, a longtime Democratic pollster. “It’s harder for them to see how government policies lead to inflation.” Ultimately, Democrats still say that their party’s fate in the midterm elections is likely to be more tied to the trajectory of the pandemic. “It’s out there, but I’m not sure the general public is so focused on it right now,” Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt said of inflation. “I still think the overriding issue here for Biden and the Democrats is COVID.”
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