Voters’ top concern is the economy as Democrats seek a ‘closing message’ to draw contrasts with GOP on combating inflation

Fifteen days from the midterm elections, new CNN polls in battleground states show that the issue at the front of voters’ minds is the economy and inflation — a reality that could tilt the outcome of key races with Democrats’ narrow House and Senate majorities in the balance.

A similar political landscape exists in three key states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — with likely voters ranking the economy and inflation as the most important issue in their state, new CNN polls conducted by SSRS found.

The share of voters ranking the issue first was similar in each state: 47% in Wisconsin, 46% in Michigan and 44% in Pennsylvania. In each state, it more than doubled the next-highest-ranking issue, abortion, and more than tripled voting rights and election integrity, which ranked third. The share across each state calling the economy a top concern is especially large among Republican and independent likely voters.

The results underscore why many Democrats have sought to focus their message on contrasting with Republicans over the economy in the midterm election’s closing days.

President Joe Biden, in a visit to the Democratic National Committee on Monday, sought to differentiate the accomplishments of his White House and the Democratic-led Congress with Republican campaign-trail rhetoric as he delivered what he called his “closing argument” for the midterms.

“Democrats are building a better America for everyone, with an economy that grows from the bottom up and the middle out where everyone does well. Republicans are doubling down on their mega MAGA trickle-down economics that benefits the very wealthy, fail the country before and will fail it again if they [win],” Biden said.

But Biden also acknowledged the pain of rising prices, saying that Democrats are working to stymie inflation. On an annual basis, prices rose by 8.2% in September, according to the Consumer Price Index, which measures the changes in prices for a basket of consumer goods and services.

“It’s a little solace, but we have a lower inflation rate than most any nation than any other nation in the world. That’s why I’m determined to reduce the burden on working and middle class folks,” Biden said.

Progressives within the party have made similar arguments in recent days.

“I think it’s important to take the attack to the Republicans. What do they want to do other than complain?” Sen. Bernie Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

“What are the Republicans’ response to inflation? What do they want to do?” the Vermont independent said. “Well, maybe they want to cut wages for workers. Do they want to raise the minimum wage? No, they don’t.”

Overall, the polls offered positive news for Democrats in the Senate races in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and the governor’s races in those two states and Michigan.

In the race for retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat in Pennsylvania, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has 51% support to Republican nominee Mehmet Oz’s 45% support among likely voters, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS found. In Wisconsin, the poll shows no clear leader, with 50% of likely voters behind Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and 49% backing his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

Winning one or both of the Republican-held seats would significantly improve Democrats’ chances of holding onto their majority in a Senate currently split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the tie-breaking vote. The party is on defense in close races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and also faces competitive contest for Democratic-held seats in Colorado and New Hampshire.

However, the polls found indications that there is little Biden can do to change the political landscape over the next two weeks, with the President’s approval rating deeply underwater in all three states and economic gloom pervasive.

Just 1 in 10 Wisconsin likely voters say the state’s economy is getting better, with 61% saying it’s getting worse, and the rest saying it’s stayed about the same. The picture is similar in Michigan, where 13% of likely voters see the economy as getting better and 61% see it as worsening. In Pennsylvania, only 8% of likely voters see the state’s economy improving, while 63% say it’s getting worse.

There is also the potential for spikes in gas prices and a worsening economic picture: Almost two-thirds of corporate economists believe the United States is already in a recession or will be within the next 12 months, according to the latest survey from the National Association for Business Economics.

Four Democratic strategists — pollsters Celinda Lake and Stanley Greenberg, Center for American Politics President Patrick Gaspard and Bill Clinton White House veteran Mike Lux — published in the liberal magazine The American Prospect a memo urging Democratic candidates to recalibrate their closing messages to focus intently on inflation.

“Voters want politicians to solve these problems. Inflation and the cost of living is their number one concern right now, and they are thinking and talking about it all the time in part because they believe it is getting worse with no end in sight. … They want to know you understand what is going on in their lives. They want to know you are helping with their number one problem and have a plan,” the four wrote.

Key debates this week

The new polling comes ahead of a series of debates that prove pivotal to the outcomes of several key races.

In Florida on Monday night, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is seeking a second term amid wide speculation that he could be a 2024 presidential contender — faces off in a debate against Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, a former governor and congressman.

Another gubernatorial debate comes Tuesday, when Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Tudor Dixon face off in their second and final clash.

At the same time, in Pennsylvania, Fetterman and Oz will participate in a debate with high stakes, as Fetterman attempts to prove to voters that he is able to hear and speak clearly after suffering a stroke in May.

Fetterman’s campaign was attempting to lower expectations for the debate, telling reporters in a memo that “this isn’t John’s format” while highlighting Oz’s experience hosting his television show.

The memo also warned that Fetterman’s team anticipates that Republicans will seize on moments in which Fetterman faces “awkward pauses” or is “missing some words” with videos after the debate.

“John has had a remarkable recovery, but the ongoing auditory processing challenges are real,” the memo from Fetterman adviser Rebecca Katz and campaign manager Brendan McPhillips said. “The campaign insisted on closed captioning technology because it’s necessary. But he’ll be open and upfront about those challenges, just like he has been in interviews and at rallies for the last few months.”

While much of the attention on Senate races has focused on the larger stakes of control in Washington, voters in individual states are far more likely to say they are focused on the candidates’ issue positions in deciding who they will support for the Senate.

Of the likely voters surveyed, 48% called that the most important factor in their vote in Pennsylvania and 45% in Wisconsin, compared to 27% in Pennsylvania saying they are thinking about which party will control the Senate and 20% in Wisconsin.

Another 35% in Wisconsin say candidate character and integrity will be their top consideration, while 25% say the same in Pennsylvania.

Fights for governor

Democrats currently hold the governor’s offices in Michigan, where Whitmer is up for reelection; Wisconsin, where Gov. Tony Evers is also seeking a second term; and Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf is term-limited and Attorney General Josh Shapiro is the Democratic nominee to replace him.

Evers has the support of 50% of likely voters, while Republican Tim Michels has 48%, a finding that’s well within the survey’s margin of error.

Whitmer leads Dixon among likely voters, 52% to 46%. Voters are 6 percentage points likelier to view Whitmer favorably than unfavorably, while Dixon’s rating is underwater by 10 points.

Shapiro leads Republican Doug Mastriano in the race to replace Wolf, 56% to 41%, among likely voters.

The governor’s races could steer policy in those states on two key issues: abortion rights and how elections are conducted.

The Republican challengers Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have all at times parroted false conspiracy theories about widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Democrats, meanwhile, have touted their fiscal efforts in their states while positioning themselves as defenders of election integrity and abortion rights.

In Wisconsin, Evers — who cannot unilaterally change the state’s 1849 abortion ban — this month called the Republican-led state legislature into a special session in which he urged lawmakers to create an avenue for a referendum on abortion rights in the state to be added to a future ballot.

In Michigan, Whitmer has placed her support for abortion rights — including her lawsuit to block the enforcement of a 1931 law, which was invalidated by the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade but remained on the state’s books, prohibiting abortions even in cases of rape or incest.

Voters will decide in a referendum on Michigan’s ballots, which Whitmer has championed, whether to amend the state’s constitution to protect abortion rights.

The CNN poll found that a 54% majority of likely voters in Michigan support that referendum, known as Proposal 3, while 45% are opposed.

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