The 2022 election is a little more than a month away. And increasingly, it’s looking like the outcome of a close battle for both the House and Senate could hinge on which timely issues Americans vote on more: the economy and inflation, or abortion rights and concerns about democracy/political extremism. The GOP holds double-digit edges on the former issues, while Democrats benefit from keeping focused on the latter.
Figuring out which will actually matter more is much more difficult.
On its surface, the former — and by extension, Republicans — would seem to be winning out.
A new Monmouth University poll released Monday asked people what would be more important to their votes: the economy and the cost of living, or fundamental rights and the democratic process. The former won by 54 percent to 38 percent. Similarly, the poll showed many more people said inflation (82 percent) and jobs and unemployment (68 percent) were very important to them than said the same of abortion (56 percent).
The numbers echo a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week that showed 62 percent said the abortion issue was very important to them — behind both the economy and inflation.
Fox News has repeatedly cited such polls to suggest that Americans just aren’t as focused on the Democrats’ supposed ace on the hole issue of abortion rights.
But figuring out just how these issues cut isn’t so simple. While there is perhaps reason to believe the abortion issue won’t be as fruitful an issue for Democrats as it was more immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it’s worth digging a little deeper.
Abortion does rank significantly behind the issues of the economy and inflation. But that’s in large part because the latter are issues of bipartisan interest and concern. Republicans are most focused on them, for perhaps obvious reasons — including that they tend to think they’re bigger problems than Democrats do. But asking a voter whether the economy is important to their vote is kind of like asking them whether they like puppies. It’s always important. It’s more important when things aren’t looking great. But even that doesn’t mean people who emphasize the issue are predisposed against the party in power because of it.
The reason abortion lags behind as an issue is actually pretty simple: It’s not a focal point for Republicans. While 8 in 10 Democrats say it’s at least very important to their vote, just 4 in 10 Republicans say the same.
That’s a contrast to, say, inflation, which Republicans emphasize more, but three-fourths of Democrats say is very important. Indeed, Republicans got what they wanted on abortion and in all likelihood won’t be getting a national abortion ban, so it’s just not an immediate issue for most of them. Which means this issue is more motivating for Democrats.
That’s really the benefit of the issue for the left. To the extent people say this issue is very important to them, they’re by and large the people who might be voting accordingly — or be more likely to vote at all because of what the Supreme Court did.
And if you focus on that, you see that this issue could rank high when it comes to base mobilization. In fact, 46 percent of Democrats say the issue is “extremely” important to them — which is the same as the percentage of Republicans who say that about inflation. If you had told Democrats six months ago that they’d have an issue that would be about as mobilizing for their side as historic inflation is for the other side, they’d have snapped your hand off.
It’s less obvious that the other pillar of Democrats’ 2022 argument — extremism and Jan. 6 — will accrue as much to Democrats’ advantage. But again we have a situation in which more than 8 in 10 Democrats say “elections and voting” is at least very important to their vote and 43 percent say it’s “extremely” important. Republicans are up there, too, with about 7 in 10 saying it’s very important.
Most of them are undoubtedly coming at this from a different position — wrongly believing the 2020 election was stolen — but there are a fair number of Republicans who don’t buy into their party’s voter-fraud conspiracy theories, too.
These issues are very difficult things to poll — especially if you’re trying to glean clues about the coming election. Most polls will ask people what their most important issue is, but finding out that 22 percent of people (or whatever) say the economy is No. 1 doesn’t really tell us a whole lot or about how people weigh the issues on a relative bases.
Asking people to rate issues individually gets closer to the mark, but you still have to consider how people emphasizing an issue will translate to actual votes, if at all. You also need to figure out whether an issue is just broadly important or important in the moment, particularly whether voters are being presented with an actionable choice.
All of that said, it seems quite possible abortion could fade as an issue of importance, at least somewhat and potentially decisively (given how close things are looking). It pretty evidently helped Democrats over-perform in a series of special elections conducted after the Supreme Court’s decision — results that were hard to fathom when Republicans were demonstrating momentum in the spring — and Democrats gained on the generic ballot.
But those over-performances will be difficult to translate to a general election, when more casual voters turn out. What’s more, the New York Times’s Nate Cohn pointed to declining Google search interest in abortion and Jan. 6, among other things, as potentially spelling some trouble for Democrats. It seems possible that owes to less big, timely news on those subjects. But it’s also difficult to make people stay focused on an issue for months at a time.
And sometimes, it’s not just your issues losing their salience; it’s others surpassing them. Democrats seemed to be gaining not just as abortion rights became timely, but as gas prices were falling and inflation was slowing. Suddenly, gas prices seem to be inching up again, and the most recent inflation data spooked the markets.
If that continues, whatever people feel about the Supreme Court’s decision and Jan. 6 could suddenly become less important to them — and less of a boon to Democrats. What’s evident is that the two sides are focused on very different things, and convincing voters those are the most important things will be paramount.