Inflation has roared back onto the scene as a key issue ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, after five decades during which slow and steady price increases were a political nonissue.
It was once a potent driver of politics in America, one that panicked former President Richard M. Nixon and his administration, and later helped to make Jimmy Carter a one-term president. As prices surge, inflation is again taking center stage, and could help decide who controls Congress.
Household confidence has plummeted as inflation has climbed, and economic issues have shot to the top of what voters are worried about. A full 49 percent of voters overall said that the economy is an extremely important issue to them in an October Gallup survey, notably outranking abortion, crime and relations with Russia. That’s the highest level of economic concern headed into a midterm election since 2010, when the economy was coming out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Inflation is almost certainly the issue pushing the economy to its current prominence. Consumer prices picked up by 8.2 percent in the year through September, far faster than the roughly 2 percent annual gains that were normal in the years leading up to the pandemic. That has left many families feeling like they are falling behind, even as unemployment lingers near a 50-year low, employers hire at a solid clip and job openings abound.
The disconnect between the strength of the economy and the way that voters feel about it illustrates why Democrats are barreling into the midterms on the defensive. Elected politicians have a limited role to play in fighting inflation, a job that falls mostly to the Federal Reserve. That has made talking about price increases all the more challenging.
Survey data suggest that while voters disagree over whom to blame for today’s rapid price increases, a larger share of independent voters believe that Republicans would be better for the economy and their finances. And irritation over the state of the economy could be enough to prompt some people to vote for change even if the other party doesn’t offer clearly better solutions, according to political scientists. The question is less whether inflation will be a factor driving votes — and more whether it will be a decisive one.
“It matters enormously to the election this week,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution, noting that gas and grocery prices are omnipresent realities for most families. “It is obvious what is happening in inflation every single day: Voters don’t get to forget it.”
Across the political spectrum, many Americans are feeling less positive about their personal finances: An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from October found that 36 percent of Democrats now say their finances are in bad shape, up from 28 percent in March. Among Republicans, that number was 53 percent, up from 41 percent. Independents were fairly unchanged, with 53 percent feeling negative.
That could be particularly bad for Democrats, because they are often seen as less strong on the economy.
New survey data from the University of Michigan showed that 41 percent of voters felt neither party had an advantage when it came to helping their personal finances. But of those who did think there was a difference, 35 percent thought Republicans would be better — versus 20 percent for Democrats. Consumers also expected Republicans to win in national races.
“By and large, respondents expect Republicans to gain control of both the House and the Senate,” Joanne Hsu, director of the University of Michigan’s consumer surveys, wrote in the Nov. 4 release.
Whether they are right could hinge on whether inflation proves as salient for actual votes as it is in sentiment surveys.
Prices may be rising quickly — annoying consumers and occupying their attention — but unemployment is very low, which Ms. Kamarck said might alleviate the angst. Plus, she said, critical groups of voters — most notably women — may focus on other issues including a Supreme Court ruling from earlier this year that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional right to abortion.
Hally Simpson Wilk, 36, from Broadview Heights, Ohio, is feeling inflation at the grocery store, but she does not think that Republicans would necessarily be better at solving the problem than Democrats. Plus, she said, the abortion ruling had “lit a fire under” her. She expects to vote Democrat.
It is hard to guess whether unhappiness over rising prices will drive actual votes in part because there isn’t much recent precedent. While inflation has a history of driving politics in America, it hasn’t been a major issue in 50 years.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, inflation was even faster, touching peaks as high as 12 and 14 percent. Those price increases, and the nation’s response to them, played a big role in driving the national conversation and deciding elections during that era. Mr. Nixon in 1971 instituted wage and price caps to try to temporarily keep prices under control ahead of the 1972 election, for instance.
“Inflation robs every American, every one of you,” Mr. Nixon said during his surprise announcement, which included other major economic policy changes. “Homemakers find it harder than ever to balance the family budget. And 80 million American wage earners have been on a treadmill.”
Those wage and price caps may have been politically astute, but research since has showed they just delayed price jumps — they didn’t stop them. When Mr. Carter became president in 1977, inflation was still raging. The Fed wrestled it under control with super-high interest rates that sent unemployment soaring, a campaign that is widely credited with helping to cost Mr. Carter a second term.
America’s experience during the 1970s also illustrates a harsh reality: Even if inflation drives the nation’s politics, there is relatively little politicians can do to address it, aside from trying to avoid making the problem worse by stimulating the economy. Taxing and spending policies to offset price increases mostly have comparatively small effects.
The country’s main tool for fighting rapid price increases is Fed policy — and that is a painful solution. When the central bank lifts interest rates, it slows economic demand, cools hiring, moderates wage growth and eventually drags prices lower as shoppers pull back and companies find that they can no longer charge more.
“There is not an easy fix for inflation — the fix is a recession,” Ms. Kamarck said. For Democrats, “it is very hard to have an economic message.”
Economists typically attribute today’s rapid price increases partially to government spending, including a package that Democrats passed in 2021 that helped to fuel consumer demand. But they are also global in nature, tied partly to lingering supply issues amid the pandemic, and food and fuel market disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Many voters believe that today’s price increases are not wholly — even principally — the Democratic administration’s fault. But that assessment divides along party lines.
About 87 percent of Democrats attribute inflation to factors outside of President Biden’s control, versus 48 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans, based on AP-NORC polling data from last month.
People who were already on the fence could have their minds swayed by inflation — especially in places where it is particularly painful. Price increases are reported at a metro level, and some cities in key battleground states are facing particularly rapid price increases: Inflation was at 11.7 percent in Atlanta; 13 percent in Phoenix; and 9 percent in the Seattle metro area as of the latest available data.
And even if inflation is hovering near the national average in some places, it is still the fastest pace in decades.
Pennsylvania’s Senate race is closely contested, and Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa., thinks that rapid price increases could be one factor that is helping the Republican candidate Mehmet Oz run a competitive race despite very low favorability ratings.
“We often see in midterm races that if people aren’t happy, a price is paid by the incumbent party,” Mr. Borick said. Inflation “places people in a mood that really does open up the door to alternatives that might not otherwise be acceptable.”