Victory at the US ballot box hinges on offering the right answers to the questions that matter most to voters. But their shifting priorities have proved difficult to pin down in this year’s midterm election.
Democrats made significant headway in recent months arguing that moves to curb voting rights and abortion access amounted to fundamental threats to freedom and democracy that ought to count for more than partisan politics.
But Republicans have managed to return the campaign to a more traditional tussle over the economy and law and order, with inflation stubbornly high, violent crime soaring and the immigration crisis showing no sign of abating.
With Election Day just two weeks away, here are the issues animating American voters.
With grocery prices spiraling, gas ticking back up, and economists making dark noises about a looming recession, the economy has figured at the top of almost every poll of voters’ priorities in the final weeks of the campaign.
Inflation stands at a vertiginous 8.2 percent in the United States.
Although it is a global issue over which presidents have very limited power, Republicans have blamed Democrats for exacerbating price hikes through runaway spending.
The number of people who rate inflation as extremely important in Monmouth University’s polling has increased from 37 percent in September to 46 percent.
In a Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey of around 2,000 registered voters, 48 percent said inflation was more likely to make them vote Republican, while 36 percent said it pushed them towards Democrats.
Law and order is not new ground for Republicans, who have been hitting Democrats particularly hard on the issue since violence and vandalism marred nationwide racial justice protests in 2020.
Violent crime as a whole is soaring—up 28 percent from 640,836 incidents in 2020 to 817,020 in 2021, according to FBI data.
More than three-quarters of voters said violent crime was a major problem in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, and a Fox News survey showing similar levels of concern placed the issue second behind inflation.
In Pennsylvania, one of the country’s closest Senate races, Republican hopeful Mehmet Oz accuses his Democratic rival John Fetterman almost daily of being “soft on crime.” Republicans have adopted the same tactics in other swing states, including Nevada and Wisconsin.
Voters believe strongly that democracy is imperiled, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, yet they frame the issue differently from the media.
Almost three-quarters of registered voters agreed that democracy was “under threat,” yet their concern was institutional corruption—the kind of low-level greed that undermines public confidence in officialdom.
They did not appear anywhere near as worried about the themes preoccupying the Washington press pack, such as the multiple allegations of misconduct against Donald Trump, the US Capitol assault, and election denialism.
In fact, the widely-praised work of the House committee investigating the 2021 attack on the US Capitol, and Trump’s culpability in the violence, has not affected the former president’s approval rating.
Migration into the US from Mexico has been surging past last year’s record-breaking levels, its deadly consequences laid bare by the discovery of more than 50 dead migrants in an abandoned lorry in Texas.
Economic catastrophes, crime and natural disasters in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and a handful of other countries has been fueling the influx, which Republicans say is the source of America’s fentanyl crisis.
Immigration has been ranking high to mid-table among voters’ priorities, often placed fourth behind inflation, crime and threats to democracy.
A Monmouth University poll in September showed just 31 percent of Americans approving of the job Biden is doing on the issue, compared to 63 percent who disapprove.
Reproductive rights once appeared to be the issue that would decide the election. Voter registrations, particularly among women, surged after the US Supreme Court ended federal protections for abortion access in June.
But it has lost momentum as a campaign issue more recently, sparking concern among Democrats that they may have relied too heavily on the subject in favor of “kitchen table” fare like inflation.
It’s not clear that the issue is a straightforward winner for liberals in any case.
In the Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll, 41 percent said abortion was more likely to get them to vote Democratic but almost as many—38 percent—said it would turn them towards the Republicans.
Best of the rest
Several more peripheral issues have dropped in and out of polls on voters’ priorities, important enough to get a mention in debates and the occasional campaign ad but not seen as a dealbreaker for support in the midterms.
These include racial equality, gun control, and the climate crisis—perhaps the most pressing issue of all, despite its singular inability to turn heads during election campaigns.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll roughly half of registered voters said climate change was “very important” or “one of the most important issues” in their vote for Congress.