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Democrats struggle with message on inflation in final midterm push

With three weeks to go until Election Day, the economy remains a central worry for voters.
Beef is advertised for sale in a grocery store on Sept. 13, 2022 in Los Angeles.
Beef is advertised for sale in a grocery store on Sept. 13, in Los Angeles.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As Republicans regain momentum on concerns about the economy, the only thing Democrats seem to agree on about their message on issues like inflation and high gas prices is that it needs improvement — and time is running out.

“What is our message about why inflation is going to be worse if Republicans win?” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told NBC News in an interview. “I don’t think our economic message has been loud enough or sharp enough.”

“We’ll have to message it better in the next three weeks ahead,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an interview with Punchbowl News this week, when asked about inflation.

In response, the spokesperson for Justice Democrats, a progressive group, tweeted, “With all due respect, this is a terrible Democratic Party message in response to inflation and the skyrocketing cost of living from Speaker Pelosi."

With gas prices up again and a potential recession looming, voters are once again telling pollsters that inflation is the most important issue facing the country, reversing the boost Democrats enjoyed over the summer when the public was more concerned with issues like abortion rights and threats to democracy.

Democratic pollsters and strategists are sounding the alarm. Even as President Joe Biden and some candidates sharpen their focus on inflation, many Democrats are worried it may be coming too late.

“Polling is going south in multiple races, and unless the goal is to lose more than we should ever have to, Democrats need to wake up to political reality and focus on inflation and economic anxiety — these are the issues that matter most to voters,” said Chris Kofinis, CEO of Park Street Strategies, a public relations and research firm.

When inflation first started creeping up in 2021, Democrats tried to downplay the issue, arguing it was a temporary — a hiccup of pandemic-related supply chain disruptions that would soon resolve itself. 

Even now, party leaders are divided on whether to focus on empathizing with voters’ pain on rising prices, which risks validating the GOP message on inflation, or to focus on explanations for why they are not to blame for a complex global economic phenomenon.

“Inflation is there, but it’s global and not as bad as it is in some countries,” Pelosi said in the interview with Punchbowl News, echoing a common Democratic talking point.

That may be sound economics, but it’s poor politics, say another camp of Democratic officials and strategists. 

They argue the party needs to start by validating Americans’ concerns about the economy, then articulate clearly what they will do to help.

“Inflation never should have been downplayed,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who has researched voter views in post-industrial areas that have drifted Republican. “Working-class folks are getting hit hard by inflation and we need to make clear that we understand what is going on, we know that people are having a tough time and we are with them in this fight.”

Democrats also appear to be getting drowned out on the issue where it may matter most: In the multimillion-dollar TV ad campaigns where modern elections are fought.

Last month, 32% of pro-GOP ads focused on inflation compared to just 8% of pro-Democratic ads, according to an analysis of all political ads run by candidates and outside groups by the Wesleyan Media Project.

“Ads for both parties discussed inflation during the early summer, but since then, pro-Democratic ads have avoided mentions of inflation while pro-Republican ads have increased their discussion of inflation,” the researchers wrote.

Voters have increasingly ranked the economy and cost of living as their top issues and given Republicans higher marks for their handling of the economy, according to NBC News polls. 

Just 16% of voters say the economy is “excellent” or “good,” according to a new CNBC poll, while 59% expect a recession in the next year. A new Monmouth survey found that the portion of Americans who list inflation as “extremely important” jumped from 37% to 46% in the past month, while just 31% say Biden has been giving enough attention to issues that matter most.

Economic issues are hitting voters particularly hard in states where Democrats’ control of the Senate hangs in the balance, including Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.

Phoenix has the highest inflation rate in the country, driven largely by housing costs that have gone up 19% in the past year. The second highest inflation rate among major metros was in Atlanta, which topped the list last year. In Nevada, a gallon of gas still costs more than $5 despite prices dropping under $4 in most of the country, giving the battleground state some of the highest gas prices in the country.

Customers refuel at a gas station in Las Vegas on July 21, 2022.
Customers refuel at a gas station in Las Vegas on July 21.Bridget Bennett / Bloomberg via Getty Images

While abortion is still the best message to turn out the base, Lux said, it’s not enough to win independents and disaffected Democrats.

Biden has given major speeches this week on gas prices and the reduction in the federal deficit, making the case that his handling of the economy would be better than what Republicans are proposing.

"The election is not a referendum. It’s a choice. It’s a choice," Biden said in remarks Friday from the White House. "And the Republicans criticize my economic record. But look at what I’ve inherited. And what I’ve done and look at what they’re offering."

But other Democrats running in close races have barely touched issues around the economy.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes has focused his campaign ads and messaging in recent weeks on attacking incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson over his stance on abortion, instead of economic issues. In the two debates between the candidates, Johnson repeatedly hammered Barnes and the Biden administration for deficit spending, blaming it for fueling inflation.

Some Democrats have tried to connect inflation to abortion.

“Having children is why you’re worried about your price for gas, it’s why you’re concerned about how much food costs. For women, this is not a reductive issue. You can’t divorce being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy from the economic realities of having a child,” Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said in an MSNBC interview Tuesday when pressed about the focus on abortion when voters say the economy is their main issue.

Other vulnerable battleground incumbents, like Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., have, in fact, leaned hard into the economy, but the messaging doesn’t appear to have broken through to voters.

Cortez Masto, one of the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle, has for months pounded her Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt, with ads attempting to tie him to the oil and gas industry and high gasoline prices. In campaign appearances and ads, she’s frequently attempted to explain to voters that the Inflation Reduction Act will lower costs for voters. But the messages don’t appear to have cut through Laxalt’s own amped-up emphasis on the economic pain residents are experiencing, according to voters and polls, which show the race in a dead heat.

“Republicans probably have an advantage on these issues in part because Democrats haven’t put forward a solution. We need an answer if we want to win,” said Max Berger, a former adviser to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

Only a coordinated, national message can reach busy voters being inundated with TV ads and mailers, Berger added.

“I don’t know if I could tell you what the priority is for how we’re going to help working people. I think that’s really concerning,” he said. “I don’t think there’s actually consensus on what the priority should be and what the message should be, specifically around cost of living, if we win.”

Democrats succeeded in driving an effective national message on abortion this summer, but the growing voter concerns over inflation risks trumping that effort, some warn.

“I am alarmed to hear the advice that many Democratic candidates are getting from establishment consultants and directors of well-funded Super Pacs that the closing argument of Democrats should focus only on abortion,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. wrote in a Guardian op-ed Monday. “In my view, while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered.”

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans like David Bossie, a Republican National Committee member and former Donald Trump campaign adviser, see inflation as the dominant issue in the homestretch of the campaign.

“Right now, the American people are solely focused on those pocketbook issues,” Bossie said. “They’re seeing inflation across the board that is impacting their lives and their children’s lives, and potentially their retirement hopes. That supersedes the ideological fights that the left and the mainstream media want the American people to be thinking about.”