Coined in 1992 by Bill Clinton's campaign strategist James Carville, "it's the economy, stupid" is a favorite bromide of political commentators who argue that at the end of the day it's all about dollars and cents for American voters.
Yet the truth of that well-worn phrase is hard to verify. What does "the economy" even mean, and what does placing it front and center look like? Is it possible to separate it from other social issues? Also, if it was true in 1992, does it still hold water today?
Looking at the economic backdrop of this upcoming midterm election, the answer might seem obvious. Inflation is at a 40-year high, with everything from food to energy seeing price increases. Mortgage rates are ballooning. The housing market is tanking, and consumer sentiment is declining as Americans try to process all the bad news.
At the same time, unemployment remains historically low. Jobs and wages continue to grow, and consumer spending is holding steady despite recession fears.
Certain social issues also loom large this year. The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade elevated abortion rights as a national political issue with serious short-term electoral stakes. If Republicans retake the House, for example, Democrats would have little hope of passing federal legislation to protect the procedure.
However, it's unclear if this issue will take precedence away from the economy.
What the Stats Say
According to Gallup, 49 percent of voters said the economy will be "extremely important" to their vote for Congress, while 42 percent listed abortion. Among women, 51 percent listed abortion, compared to 32 percent of men.
Another Gallup poll found that 38 percent of Americans in September mentioned economic issues as the nation's most important problem. This is high relative to the immediate pre-pandemic period, which hovered around 10-15 percent, but right about where voters were at in 2016 when the U.S. economy had slowed to a crawl. It's also well below the average between 2008 and 2016, as the economy soared after the Great Recession, which hit a peak of 86 percent in February of 2009.
Looking at the September numbers, among those mentioning inflation as the most important problem, 17 percent named the high cost of living as the biggest concern, while 12 percent said the economy in general. These numbers have stayed roughly the same since last spring. Notably, just 2 percent said lack of jobs was their biggest concern, and the number of people who said "recession" was statistically insignificant.
The emphasis on the economy also differs between party affiliations.
Sixty-four percent of Republicans, for example, said the economy is extremely important compared to 33 percent of Democrats, according to Gallup. Fifty-one percent of Democrats said abortion, meanwhile, compared to 37 percent of Republicans
Another study from Monmouth University found a similar breakdown, with 71 percent of Republicans prioritizing the economy, and 67 percent of Democrats prioritizing "rights."
Democrats are also more likely to priortize other issues such as climate change and gun control, in effect spreading Democratic priorities across a wider array of topics.
“Democrats are all over the place when it comes to their key issues," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "This makes it difficult for the party to create a cohesive messaging strategy to motivate its base. Republicans, on the other hand, just have to hammer away at rising prices and ‘the wolf is at the door’ to get their voters riled up.”
This disparity appears to be having a meaningful impact on who voters support.
The Pew Research Center released a report this month finding that among those voters who rated the economy as "very important," 47 percent support Republican candidates, while 34 percent support Democrats.
In what looks like an attempt to counter this perception that Republicans are more serious about addressing economic issues, the Biden administration has made an effort in recent weeks to promote its achievements around jobs and public investment, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
The president also touted recent data that show positive signs for the economy, including the latest gross domestic product number, which was up 2.6 percent last quarter after two consecutive quarters of declines.
“For months, doomsayers have been arguing that the U.S. economy is in a recession and congressional Republicans have been rooting for a downturn,” Biden said in a statement. “But today we got further evidence that our economic recovery is continuing to power forward. This is a testament to the resilience of the American people.”
Biden's approval rating was just 39 percent as of last week, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Economic Effects on Midterm Races
Across the United States, meanwhile, economic issues have featured to varying degrees in congressional, senatorial, and gubernatorial races.
Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's recent debate with Republican challenger Tudor Dixon touched on fuel prices and inflation, with Tudor criticizing the governor for vetoing a package that would have frozen the state gas tax. Whitmer responded that the legislation was a "gimmick" that would have taken effect far too late to have an effect.
The only debate between Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman, a Democrat, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Republican, touched on the economy as well, but also through the filter of local issues, including whether they would raise the state minimum wage or support local industries such as fracking.
One factor that could hamper the political relevance of economic issues, such as inflation, is that voters might not have high expectations of their elected officials to actually address them, regardless of their party.
"While the economy is on everyone's radar and will undoubtedly be a reason folks vote for one candidate or another, no candidate (not even the president or the chair of the Federal Reserve Bank) could or will be able to do much about inflation, which emanates from causes beyond U.S. boundaries," said Michael Lahr, director of Rutgers University Economic Advisory Service.
He added that "the U.S. economy is doing well compared to most other major economic powers worldwide. But this will be tough for the median voter to comprehend, so watch a number of less-than-articulate incumbents to be voted out. This suggests that Republicans are likely to seize control of at least the House."
With the election still more than a week out, there could also be additional developments. Just this week, the Federal Reserve is expected to announce another massive rate hike, which could have ripple effects through the economy. In addition, the latest federal jobs report is due out Friday, and it's expected to show continued growth.