Could Evolving Top Issues for Voters Shake Up The Midterm Outlook?

For months, the midterm outlook has remained relatively unchanged, with Republicans holding several electoral advantages. Whether it is the number of incumbent Democrats not seeking reelection compared to Republicans, Republican voter turnout outpacing Democrats in primaries, or President Biden’s unpopularity, all signs point to significant GOP gains this fall. However, recent shifts in voters’ top issues in Democrats’ favor have the potential to shake up the race.   

The winning party on election day is often the one voters trust most to address the pressing issues of the day. In 2020, many voters were concerned with the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue they trusted Democrats more to address. Hence, Democrats took the presidency and the Senate. However, the issues that matter most to voters have changed over the last two years, with inflation and the economy percolating to the top of voters’ minds. And these are issues they generally trust Republicans more to address. 

In recent weeks, however, polling asking voters what their top issue is ahead of the midterms has moved in Democrats’ favor following the mass shootings in Texas and New York and the leak of the Supreme Court opinion potentially overturning Roe v. Wade. In a June ABC News/Ipsos poll, gun violence and abortion ranked third and fourth, respectively, behind inflation and the economy, when voters were asked the most important issue in determining their vote for congress. These are two issues where voters have more trust in Democrats. Looking back to a March Harvard Caps/Harris poll, voters ranked inflation, the economy, and immigration as their three most important issues, all topics voters trust Republicans to address more than Democrats. (In the March poll, gun violence and abortion did not crack the top ten issues voters viewed as the most important facing the country, highlighting how recent developments have shifted voters’ thinking.)

So, will these developments shift the outlook? They haven’t yet. 

Politico’s election forecaster still grades the House as “likely Republican”’ and the Senate as “leans Republican.” Conventional wisdom suggests the party opposite of the president notches pretty significant gains in the first midterm elections after a new president is sworn in, so these gradings aren’t surprising. On top of that, a problem for Democrats is that inflation and the economy have remained top issues for voters for months, and there is no sign of that slowing down with inflation rising in May and the national average gas price eclipsing five dollars a gallon for the first time ever. Furthermore, some CEOs and economists are warning of a possible recession looming. Given these trends, these issues, which voters favor Republicans to address, are likely to be even more salient come election day. 

As these last few weeks have demonstrated, a lot can change in the four months before Americans head to the polls, but as of now, it looks like we’ll see a divided government come January 2023.

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