Instead, what should be causing a considerable sense of panicked urgency is what voters have been telling pollsters about economic issues.
I’m the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College. We conduct the Goucher College Poll, which measures opinions on political and policy issues in Maryland. And I’ve seen how focused messaging on cost-of-living issues can drive broader economic attitudes and win elections — even in the most challenging electoral environments.
Over the last year, polls have shown voters holding a decidedly grim economic outlook. Most Americans rate current economic conditions as “poor.” Many think we are in a recession and aren’t optimistic that things will improve. They view Republicans as better able to address economic issues and, in the crucial battleground states, have more trust in Trump than Biden to do a better job on the economy — and by a whopping 22 points. An October poll from PRRI found that, in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, “increasing costs of housing and everyday expenses” topped the list of the most important issues for voters. Other polls have found similar results.
The expressed economic anxiety is understandable even if not entirely rational. Voters hold these attitudes while the inflation rate has steadily decreased from its peak last summer, unemployment rates remain low with U.S. employers continuing to add jobs and many facets of Biden’s economic plan are popular. Even so, with prices of everyday goods and services stubbornly high, it might be enough to cost Biden his reelection.
Yet there are lessons to be drawn from the state level, even in solidly blue Maryland. During the first two years of the Biden administration, it was home to Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who was one of the nation’s most popular governors. One of Hogan’s first moves was to use executive power to cut tolls, notably to cross the heavily traveled Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and a series of fees in the summer of 2015. It seemed small-bore at the time. State Democratic leaders derided this move as short-sighted political showmanship that would harm the state’s budget.
Voters did not see it that way. They liked that something was a little cheaper. Moreover, the toll cuts reinforced a key theme of Hogan’s first campaign that he would protect their pocketbooks from a Maryland Democratic Party who “never met a tax they didn’t like, or at least one they didn’t hike.”
Hogan went on to earn high marks on handling economic issues throughout his eight years in office. But what’s most remarkable is how the simple act of cutting tolls — during his first months in office — impacted how voters viewed their Republican governor clear up until his successful reelection bid in 2018. Internal polling and focus groups from the governor’s campaign found that “he cut tolls” was one of the most repeated refrains from voters. One that the governor was not shy about repeating back.
Hogan isn’t the only recent pol to harness the power of simple, cost-of-living economic initiatives and related messaging. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, used a 2019 auto insurance reform bill to issue a $400 refund check per vehicle for every insured Michigan driver. Whitmer went on to win reelection last year against a challenging economic backdrop — exit polls reported 74 percent of Michigan voters described the nation’s economy as not so good or poor, and 77 percent said inflation caused their family severe or moderate hardship over the past year.
The bipartisan lesson from Hogan and Whitmer is that voters remember and reward politicians who saved them a direct household expense more than any argument based on macro-level economic indicators. Voters care about the economy in front of them.
None of this is to say that only the economy matters. In fact, preelection polling and electoral outcomes in the recent off-year elections in Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky once again confirmed that protecting access to abortion is a winning issue for Democrats. Indeed, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear — who faced a similarly challenging partisan environment in Kentucky as Hogan did in Maryland — bested his Republican opponent in large part due to protecting access to abortion.
But polling also suggests Beshear’s success with a red-state electorate that voted to reelect Trump by 26 points in 2020 is not simply an artifact of attitudes toward abortion. Polling released by Data for Progress, a progressive-leaning firm that correctly placed the Kentucky governor’s race as a tight contest with Beshear leading, in the weeks before the election found that “jobs and the economy” was the key issue for Kentucky voters. Polls of national voters, including those conducted in battleground states, continue to sing a similar tune.
Beshear consistently trumpeted Kentucky’s economic growth and record-low unemployment rates with easily digestible and overtly optimistic messages. “Put simply, we’re booming,” the governor told reporters in mid-July. Throughout his first term, and during the height of his reelection bid, Beshear used his weekly news conferences to keep the media focused on the economy. And he never missed an opportunity to localize his economic message, touting everything from the famous Buc-ee’s gas station opening a franchise in Madison County to Nucor Corp. investing $1.7 billion in a steel plate manufacturing mill in Meade County.
The Democratic governor also signed a 2023 bill passed on a near party-line vote by the Republican legislative majority to cut Kentucky’s individual income tax rate from 4.5 percent to 4 percent starting the next calendar year — and then chastised Republicans for not moving to cut the sales tax as a means to fight inflation and the costs of goods. Beshear pounded home his message, and like Hogan did with tolls, he used his executive power to provide immediate and tangible economic relief when he ordered a freeze on the vehicle property taxes for 2022 and 2023. “Prices are simply too high,” Beshear said and, just like they did in Michigan and Maryland, voters responded to the economy in front of them.
The election-winning takeaway? Voters could trust Beshear to steer the state’s economy and address cost-of-living issues while ensuring that the state could afford to invest in public schools and healthcare for low-income Kentuckians.
What is undoubtedly frustrating for the Biden administration is that they haven’t been able to turn the direct benefits of the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act — which bolstered economic conditions and padded state budgets in both Michigan and Kentucky — like his fellow Democrats Beshear and Whitmer were able to do. And it’s not for a lack of trying. For example, Biden’s stalled proposal to curb “junk fees,” which would ban businesses from charging hidden and misleading fees and require them to show full prices upfront, is exactly the type of initiative that could help shape broader economic views by providing direct relief to the nation’s pocketbooks.
On their end, Republicans should enjoy but not bask too long in the warm glow of polling that shows them currently besting Democrats on the economy. As recent election cycles showed, Republicans who hewed too closely to the base-pleasing trappings of Trumpism still struggled to win general elections, regardless of voters’ economic attitudes. To that point, Hogan’s economic messaging was effective across party lines because he didn’t do battle on social issues that turn off large swaths of voters.
The polls have warned Republicans that restricting access to abortion and refusing to acknowledge Biden’s victory in 2020 were losing issues. They’re telling Democrats now that social issues matter but the party still needs to win voters over on the economy. This leaves Democrats with a good reason for handwringing over the polls but also time — and successful examples from the states — on how Biden can reshape public attitudes on the economy.
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