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Inflation Stays Voters’ Top Concern. Can Republicans Keep Their Focus?

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Zach Nunn, an Iowa Republican difficult considered one of the House’s most vulnerable Democrats, had been talking for months about rising prices when a Texas congressman two weeks ago invited him to go to the Mexican border — to see the fentanyl confiscated, hear tales of dying migrants and witness overwhelmed border agents.

Mr. Nunn took all of it in, he said. Then, he went back to a district that stretches from Des Moines to the Missouri line to speak about inflation some more.

“You recognize, from knocking on 10,000 doors, what persons are inquisitive about,” Mr. Nunn said. It might not matter, he said, if he were speaking in Clarinda, Iowa — a city of 5,300 — or West Des Moines, a city of 70,000. “Persons are all talking about what is occurring with the economy,” he said.

Within the six-month primary season that got here to a detailed on Tuesday, issues like abortion, crime, immigration, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and Donald J. Trump have risen and fallen, but nothing has dislodged inflation and the economy from the highest of voters’ minds. On Wednesday, polls out of Wisconsin and Georgia again found inflation to be the problem of best concern.

A Latest York Times/Siena poll released on Friday had shiny spots for Democrats, but 49 percent of respondents said that “economic issues comparable to jobs, taxes or the price of living” were more likely to determine their votes in November, compared with 31 percent who saw “societal issues comparable to abortion, guns or democracy” as decisive. And 52 percent of registered voters said they agreed with Republicans on the economy, versus 38 percent who said they agreed with Democrats.

And Republican candidates aren’t letting go.

“Inflation is now high enough to rob every working American of a month’s pay over the course of a 12 months,” said Tom Barrett, a Michigan state senator difficult Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, in a Republican-leaning district around Lansing.

Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, released her first commercial of the final election on Thursday — and it focused solely on inflation.

“I’m Nancy Mace, and I actually have had it with crazy inflation,” she says to the camera as she counts up the price of cooking an eggs-and-bacon breakfast. (Milk, $4 a gallon, a dozen eggs, nearly $4, and bacon, $8 a pack.)

For all of the losers in an inflationary economy, there are also winners: individuals with large mortgages or student loan burdens that shrink away in real terms; employees whose wages suddenly rise, sometimes enough to maintain pace with prices; frugal seniors who enjoy Social Security cost-of-living increases tied to the inflation rate and better rates of interest on their savings accounts.

With the primaries over, each parties are shifting their focus to the final election on Nov. 8.

  • Echoing Trump: Six G.O.P. nominees for governor and the Senate in critical midterm states, all backed by former President Donald J. Trump, wouldn’t commit to accepting this 12 months’s election results.
  • Times/Siena Poll: Our second survey of the 2022 election cycle found Democrats remain unexpectedly competitive within the battle for Congress, while G.O.P. dreams of a significant realignment amongst Latino voters have did not materialize.
  • Ohio Senate Race: The competition between Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent, J.D. Vance, appears tighter than many once expected.
  • Pennsylvania Senate Race: In considered one of his most extensive interviews since having a stroke, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, said he was fully able to handling a campaign that would determine control of the Senate.

Even so, inflation has had outsize potency as a political issue for no less than a century — and since hyperinflation after World War I helped usher in authoritarianism across Europe, few issues have been quite so politically destabilizing.

Within the mid-Nineteen Nineties, Robert J. Shiller, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Yale who was puzzled by the ability of inflation as a disruptive force, surveyed people in the USA, Germany and Brazil to find out why inflation had all the time produced a lot anger, wounded national pride and a sense that an unwritten social contract between residents and their government had been broken.

Facing deep feelings of insecurity, anxiety and unfairness, “not a single respondent volunteered anywhere on the questionnaire that she or he benefited from inflation,” he marveled.

For Republicans in search of control of Congress, that history still could prove determinative, whilst Democrats attempt to center their campaigns on abortion rights and democratic pluralism and Republican strategists test other themes, like crime, the border and Democratic “radicalism.”

Representative Kim Schrier, a Democrat within the suburbs of Seattle who’s locked in a tossup contest for re-election, has gone after her Republican opponent, Matt Larkin, on abortion, using her background as a physician to press a persona of earnest trustworthiness. Democratic campaign officials in Washington, D.C., have accused Mr. Larkin of questioning the election results of 2020 and refusing to acknowledge President Biden as legitimately elected.

Mr. Larkin’s response? The value of eggs, “up 52 percent in Washington State,” he said Thursday, and milk, “way, way up within the Eighth District.”

How Times reporters cover politics. We depend on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they will not be allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Voters, he said in an interview, “are very, very concerned.”

And, in a rustic where one party controls the House, the Senate and the White House — and in a state where Democrats control just about the whole lot — “there’s also a way that the Democrats basically are doing this,” Mr. Larkin added.

That, too, is consistent with economic history: Residents of nations affected by inflation have routinely sought to assign blame — to the federal government, to greedy firms or to politicians. Inflationary periods often yield labor strife, as employees and unions press for wage increases to maintain up with rising prices, point fingers at “price-gouging” firms and, greater than anything, rage at those in power.

Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 victory over Hubert Humphrey is popularly attributed to the Vietnam War and domestic unrest, but inflation was a “top three” issue, although price increases were a comparatively mild 4.27 percent, said Jason Furman, a Harvard economist with deep connections to the national Democratic Party.

Gerald R. Ford’s defeat in 1976 is usually ascribed to the hangover from Watergate, but his WIN (Whip Inflation Now) buttons became an object of ridicule in a 12 months through which inflation was still pushing 6 percent. 4 years later, Jimmy Carter’s dreams of a second term were vaporized by 13.5 percent inflation.

And in 1982, because the Federal Reserve was engineering a recession to finally get control of price gains and Ronald Reagan was absorbing the blame, Democrats beat Republicans by nearly 12 percentage points within the midterm elections — and padded their House majority by 27 seats.

“From bitter historical experience, we understand how quickly inflation destroys confidence within the reliability of political institutions and finally ends up endangering democracy,” Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of Germany, said in 1995, paying homage to the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic.

In 2022, Republicans like State Senator Jen Kiggans, who’s difficult Representative Elaine Luria in southeast Virginia, are using inflation not only to go after the party in power, but additionally to deflect Democratic charges of “radicalism” by portraying themselves as strange family folks, in contact with consumer reality.

For voters, nevertheless, the signals from the actual economy are mixed. The official inflation report last Tuesday showed that prices in August rose 8.3 percent from a 12 months earlier, only barely higher than July’s 8.5 percent. But due to rapidly falling gasoline prices, overall consumer costs from the month before rose a barely noticeable 0.1 percent. Prices on the pump, essentially the most visible inflationary signal to consumers, are expected to proceed their fall within the weeks leading as much as the election. That would offer no less than psychological relief to consumers — and Democrats — as other cost-of-living indicators like food and rent send stock traders and the Federal Reserve running for shelter.

“In the event you’re going to have 8 percent inflation over the 12 months before as much as the election, you’d prefer to have the last three months at zero, so the sequencing is about pretty much as good because it may very well be” for Democrats, Mr. Furman said.

Mr. Barrett conceded that these fresh signals could blunt the political impact. “To some extent, they boiled the frog, then turned the temperature down a notch on the stove,” he said, “but it surely’s still raging hot.”

And his Democratic opponent, Ms, Slotkin, has taken pains to handle the problem, too, ticking off laws and administrative actions that she said she supported to handle inflation. They include suspending the federal gas tax, releasing oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, pressing firms on “price gouging” and granting Medicare the authority to barter drug prices.

“Actually if there was a silver bullet to repair it, it could have been fired,” she said, adding, “leaders have to do all they will — not only use it as a political issue.”

Republicans say that, as children return to high school, higher prices on clothes, food and faculty supplies will come more into focus, and cold weather will bring the sticker shock of soaring heating bills. The disorienting power of price increases is all of the stronger, experts say, because Americans haven’t weathered them in 4 many years.

Democrats hope to show voters’ minds elsewhere. On the lengthy “issues” web page of Mr. Nunn’s opponent, Representative Cindy Axne, the word inflation doesn’t appear, though she does mention inflation in one campaign ad as being amongst a litany of travails hitting Iowans recently. In one other ad, Ms. Axne acknowledges that “rising costs are hurting Iowa families in every single place.”

On Friday, Emilia Sykes, the Democratic candidate for an open House seat in northeast Ohio, released a recent ad saying she has “a plan to lower costs,” though she avoided the word inflation.

Elsewhere, Democrats are focusing almost exclusively on abortion, democracy and the general theme that Republicans who’ve undermined the integrity of elections and democratic institutions can’t be trusted with power.

In that sense, the parties are entering the ultimate sprint to Nov. 8 largely talking past one another.

However the unique ability of inflation to anger voters and undermine authorities in power mustn’t be underestimated, economists say.

Wage increases, though stronger than they’ve been in years, haven’t kept pace with inflation this 12 months, but in 2021, when voters’ anger showed up most clearly in polling, average family incomes “far exceeded” price gains, thanks largely to temporary tax cuts and income supplements approved in successive pandemic-relief measures, said Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist.

“Average actual real incomes went up, not down,” he said, “so it’s still a puzzle.”

For Republicans, there is no such thing as a mystery, only the challenge of staying on the problem as Democrats attempt to direct voters’ attention anywhere else.

“These things is real,” Mr. Barrett said on Thursday. “The Democrats are whistling past the graveyard.”

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