Inflation is top issue in this week's midterms
Like a movie monster from the 1970s, inflation is back and drawing crowds at a polling station near you.
Rising prices are the number one concern for voters in this year's midterm elections, outpacing abortion, crime and other hot-button issues.
More than one in three voters cited inflation as their most pressing priority, according to the latest NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. "Preserving democracy" was a distant second. Republicans were seen as better than Democrats at tackling inflation by a wide margin.
The election comes as consumer prices are climbing at near the fastest pace in four decades. Annual inflation in September was 8.2%. That's down only slightly from the 9% rate in June, which was the highest since 1981.
The consumer price index for October is set to be released on Thursday.
The surge in prices has fueled anxiety among Americans, who are paying more for gasoline, groceries and other necessities.
Inflation was not on the radar two years ago
Inflation was of little concern when President Biden first took office. Although the pandemic had triggered isolated price increases for things like lumber — the overall cost of living was climbing at less than 2% per year.
The incoming administration was more concerned about jobs — fearing a repeat of the sluggish recovery that followed the global financial crisis. The unemployment rate in January of last year was 6.4% — down from nearly 15% in the early months of the pandemic. But with COVID-19 cases climbing, the economy had lost 115,000 jobs the month before Biden was sworn in.
Congressional Democrats quickly passed a $1.9 trillion economic relief bill, which included direct payments of $1400 to most adults, along with expanded unemployment benefits and a new child tax credit.
As economic stimulus, it was a success. Employers have added more than 10 million jobs since Biden took office. But Republicans blame the aggressive relief bill — which passed with no GOP support — for fueling runaway prices.
"Inflation is caused because of reckless Democrat spending," Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., told NPR's Morning Editionlast week.
Inflation is a global problem
Other factors have undoubtedly contributed to high inflation, including the lingering effects of the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Inflation has been even higher in the Eurozone and the United Kingdom than in the U.S., largely as a result of soaring energy costs tied to the Ukraine war.
But some prominent Democrats acknowledge that last year's relief package played a role in overheating the economy and pushing prices higher.
"Now the bathtub is overflowing," said former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who had cautioned his fellow Democrats about just such an outcome. "And it's much easier to stop a bathtub from overflowing than it is to get the water back."
The Federal Reserve responds
For much of last year, the Federal Reserve believed that prices would cool off on their own, once supply chain snarls caused by the pandemic came untangled. But inflation proved to be higher and more stubborn than the central bank expected. This spring, the Fed began raising interest rates in an effort to tamp down demand and bring prices under control.
Since March, the Fed has raised its benchmark rate six times, driving up borrowing costs for anyone trying to buy a house or a car or carrying a balance on a credit card. Fed chairman Jerome Powell warned last week that rates will likely have to go even higher than expected next year, although the increases may come in smaller increments.
The Fed's crackdown, along with similar moves by other central banks, have raised the risk of a global economic slowdown.
A GOP advantage
Nearly half the voters surveyed in the NPR poll say Republicans would do a better job of controlling inflation, compared to just 27% who think Democrats would be more effective. While Republicans have capitalized on voters' frustration over rising prices, they've offered few concrete prescriptions for bringing inflation down.
Asked about the GOP strategy on Morning Edition, Sen. Scott suggested spending cuts and increased domestic energy production.
"Step one, we've got to do in government what families do. You live within your means," said Scott, who chairs the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. "On top of that, we've got to figure out how to produce energy in this country safely."
Gasoline prices are a particularly potent symbol of inflation, and President Biden's approval rating seems to fall whenever pump prices jump.
The average price of gasoline nationwide hit a record high of $5.01 a gallon in June, when sanctions against Russia sent world crude oil prices soaring. Gas prices have since declined to about $3.80, according to AAA.
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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
What are the midterm elections about? As we round the corner on the final day of this campaign, each party is proposing a different answer to that question. At a rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday, President Biden framed the election as a battle to defend free and fair elections and democratic norms.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Democracy is literally on the ballot. This is a defining moment for the nation. And we all must speak with one voice, regardless of our party.
SUMMERS: And meanwhile, last night in Miami, former President Donald Trump told voters this election is about crime and law enforcement.
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DONALD TRUMP: If you want safety for your family and security for your community, you need to vote every Democrat out of office and vote for Republicans up and down the ballot.
SUMMERS: But, of course, every election is about many issues. And we're going to talk through some of the biggest ones with five of our correspondents, starting with NPR's Scott Horsley. He covers the economy. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.
SUMMERS: Voters tend to give credit or blame for the economy to the president and his party. And right now, one of the biggest issues is inflation. How has that unfolded over the last two years?
HORSLEY: When President Biden was sworn in, inflation was not really on the radar screen as a threat. It was still running well below 2%. And the incoming administration was much more worried about jobs. In a way, they were fighting the last war. They were concerned that we might have a lackluster jobs recovery the way we did after the previous recession. So Biden and the Democratic Congress quickly passed another big stimulus bill on top of those that had come the year before. And on the jobs front, that was successful. The economy's added more than 10 million jobs since Biden came into office. But for voters like Craig Barnes in Plano, Texas, that has been totally eclipsed by high inflation.
CRAIG BARNES: Well, the cost of everything - you know, eggs and chicken, everything. You don't think about it until, all of a sudden at the end of the month, you go, damn, did I just spend three times I've ever done? You know, that's - we've got to stop.
HORSLEY: Republicans put much of the blame for high inflation on that big stimulus bill that Democrats passed on a party-line vote. Of course, the lingering effects of the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have also contributed to higher prices. That's why you see high inflation in many other countries as well.
SUMMERS: So, Scott, have Democrats taken any significant steps to fight inflation? And also, have Republicans put forward any concrete actions that they will take if voters give them control of Congress?
HORSLEY: Democrats may have been too clever by half when they named their big climate and health care bill the Inflation Reduction Act. It hasn't actually done much to reduce inflation, and Democrats aren't getting as much credit for the clean energy provisions that are in the bill. Meanwhile, Republicans have happily seized on voters' anger over inflation, but they haven't actually proposed much in the way of solutions. They have talked in vague terms about cutting spending. Of course, they've also talked about cutting taxes, which could actually boost inflation.
SUMMERS: That was NPR's Scott Horsley. And next, I want to turn to abortion, which Democrats hoped would be a central issue in these midterm elections after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion. NPR's Sarah McCammon has been covering the consequences of that decision. Hi, Sarah.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.
SUMMERS: So, Sarah, where have we seen the biggest effects from that decision? And who is it most affecting?
MCCAMMON: Well, first off, anyone who lives in the dozen or so states where abortion is now illegal is obviously affected. Beyond that, women of color and low-income people seek abortions at higher rates. And now, many of those patients have to travel even farther than they might have before. That's something that Democrats are trying to emphasize in a year when the economy is top of mind for many voters. Here's Laphonza Butler, the president of EMILY's List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights.
LAPHONZA BUTLER: Our economy ebbs and flows. But once our fundamental freedoms are taken away, we don't know if we're ever going to be able to get that back.
MCCAMMON: So Democrats are making the case that abortion is both a human rights issue and an economic one. Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to paint Democrats as extreme on abortion or, in some cases, they're just backing away from the issue and focusing on these other issues, like the economy and crime.
SUMMERS: And, Sarah, do you have a sense of whether people are actually going out to vote on the issue of abortion?
MCCAMMON: You know, a recent Gallup poll found that abortion was the second most important issue to voters after the economy, so yes. And there's been a surge in women registering to vote in recent months. Women rank both abortion and the economy as extremely important, basically, neck and neck. So Democrats have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars campaigning around this issue. And the real question, Juana, is how much Democrats can harness that energy that was seen right after the Supreme Court decision and whether that will outweigh other concerns in the minds of voters.
SUMMERS: That was NPR's Sarah McCammon. I want to turn next to NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration for NPR. Hey there, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.
SUMMERS: So, Joel, tell us. What is happening at the border right now and how are those issues resonating in these elections?
ROSE: Yeah. We have seen a record number of arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 2 million in a single year for the first time, although more than a million of those migrants were quickly expelled under pandemic border restrictions that have been in place since the Trump administration. But you don't hear that second part quite as often. Republicans, in particular, have been playing up a sense that the border is in chaos, talking about illegal immigration as a threat and a burden. One of the more extreme examples is this TV ad from a dark money group called Citizens for Sanity, which has ties to several former Trump administration officials, including Stephen Miller. This ad aired a few weeks ago in states with key Senate races.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This giant flood of illegal immigration is draining your paychecks, wrecking your schools, ruining your hospitals and threatening your family. Mixed among the masses are drug dealers, sex traffickers and violent predators.
ROSE: Democrats and immigrant advocates have decried this ad as racist and misleading. Immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. And immigrant advocates say this is blatant fearmongering right out of the Trump playbook.
SUMMERS: We have also heard a number of Republican candidates talk quite a bit about the amount of fentanyl crossing the southern border. Are the claims that they're talking about there accurate?
ROSE: Republican candidates are pointing to a real problem. Overdose deaths associated with fentanyl have been rising. But GOP candidates and ads are sometimes misleading voters about how that fentanyl is coming into the U.S. It's true that a great deal of fentanyl is smuggled illegally into the U.S. from Mexico, but the vast majority of it comes through legal ports of entry, according to experts - smuggled by drug cartels in vehicles along with legitimate commerce, often by U.S. citizens. It's very rare to see fentanyl or other drugs smuggled on the backs of migrants who are crossing the border illegally. So advocates argue it's misleading to call this an immigration problem.
SUMMERS: That was NPR's Joel Rose. All right. Now let's take a closer look at crime as an issue in this election. Martin Kaste covers law enforcement for NPR. Hey, Martin.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.
SUMMERS: I just want to start here with a basic question - is crime actually up since the last election?
KASTE: Yes, if you're looking at murders and shootings. No, if you're looking at other kinds of crime averaged in, such as robbery and sexual assault. But there's also a big maybe here because there's a lot of uncertainty about 2021 numbers because the Feds changed how they count crime statistics and some departments didn't report. Politically what that means is there's some uncertainty here. A lot of people are judging the crime problem based on things they've seen in the news, horrific cases of, you know, homicides, shootings or the increasing disorder they've seen in some cities, such as public drug use and quality-of-life crimes. And that - those things certainly have increased over the last few years.
SUMMERS: You know, we've all seen these campaign ads, and clearly, Republicans are trying to blame higher crime rates on Democrats. Is that justified, and is it working?
ROSE: Well, if you believe that higher crime is created by a pullback by the police - and that's a big if - but if you believe that, then you could argue that local Democrats in liberal cities - people like city council members in places like New York and Minneapolis, Seattle - are responsible because they called for defunding the police in 2020. There was no real defunding of police, but police did pull back in those cities. They lost a lot of officers. Morale took a hit. And so, you know, if you believe that's the cause and effect, then you could blame them.
But congressional-level Democrats, state-level Democrats, even national-level Democrats have opposed the defund-the-police mantra since the beginning. They've called for more funding of policing, President Biden chief among them. So really what the Republicans have doing very - in a savvy way here is linking those people who are on the ballot this year, on the state level, with some of those local, more liberal people who, you know, rallied people to the defund-the-police cause back in 2020.
SUMMERS: NPR's Martin Kaste. Given that the last U.S. election was followed by an insurrection aimed at preventing the peaceful transfer of power, it feels appropriate that we end this conversation with the actual nuts and bolts of democracy. NPR's Miles Parks covers our voting systems and threats to them. Hey, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.
SUMMERS: So, Miles, if we look at threats to election and people's trust in them, what has changed since 2020?
PARKS: Election officials right now in 2022 are working in a powder keg. The level of pressure and scrutiny is higher than it's ever been before. And that's coming specifically from voters who've been, frankly, radicalized by the rhetoric from former President Trump. For context, just 39% of GOP voters this year say they are very confident in their community's poll workers. That's down from 60% just four years ago, according to the Pew Research Center. So it's a suspicious - it's a scary environment right now for voting officials, which could also mean those election officials make more mistakes, which can then lead to further distrust. It's a bad cycle.
SUMMERS: Yeah. President Biden and others have argued that this is an existential issue. Here's former President Obama in Arizona last week.
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BARACK OBAMA: If you've got election deniers serving as your governor, as your Senator, as your secretary of state, as your attorney general, then democracy as we know it may not survive in Arizona. That's not an exaggeration. That is a fact.
SUMMERS: Strong warning from former President Obama there. But, Miles, is this something that people are voting on?
PARKS: I think that's the big question, especially in down-ballot races like secretary of state races in places like Nevada and Arizona, where election deniers are running to oversee voting. We know from our most recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say preserving democracy is top of mind when they're casting their ballots. And then there's also a real divide on education. Voters with a college degree are much more likely to say democracy's a big issue for them. So it would not surprise me if there's a connection between places that elect election deniers and places that have fewer voters with college degrees.
SUMMERS: That was NPR's Miles Parks, part of a whole basketball team's worth of correspondents helping us break down all of the big issues that America is voting on this year. Thank you so much.
PARKS: Thank you - happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.