WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden ramps up his efforts to help Democrats in the midterm elections, he’s focused on a selling point that, so far, voters aren’t: his plan to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.
Standing in an industrial building near the Port of New Hampshire last month, flanked by construction and boating equipment, Biden talked dredging, bridges and lead pipes.
“Folks, this matters. It matters to our safety, our security, our health," Biden told the crowd there as he promoted the $550 billion infrastructure package he shepherded through Congress last year.
The president's second trip in six months to New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan is expected to face a tough re-election fight, was just the latest in a steady string of stops designed to highlight the legislation.
But yet again that day, by most objective measures, much of the country’s focus lay elsewhere — on a court order lifting the mask requirement on airplanes, on the impact of surging inflation and on Russia’s renewed assault on Ukraine.
The infrastructure bill has been Biden's biggest policy accomplishment so far, and is generally seen by voters as a positive. But while they may like the idea of new roads and bridges, it isn’t to be found on the list of top issues they say they care about most.
Instead, inflation, the war in Ukraine and, as of last week, abortion are top of mind for voters — and, say political strategists and candidates, those areas are where candidates in tough re-election battles are focusing their energy. While Biden and the White House have not avoided the topics, and acknowledge they stand to be major issues this fall, the president has so far continued to devote the bulk of his public message to infrastructure.
“Infrastructure is so far down the list of concerns that if I were the president, I wouldn’t be selling infrastructure,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, of the message to voters. “Yeah, it’s great there’s going to be a bridge, but we’re not going to see that bridge built for five years. They’re not going to see anything in the short term that is going to impact their lives because of the passage of infrastructure.”
Last month, Biden made stops in New Hampshire, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina and Iowa where his primary message was the way those states stood to benefit from the infrastructure law. The White House also sent Cabinet members and other top officials on trips to 25 states last month to talk infrastructure.
"We’re talking about billions of dollars modernizing roads, bridges, airports, delivering clean water, high speed internet," Biden said Friday in Ohio, where he also pushed for legislation to bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry.
But Democrats in competitive races this cycle say they are focusing more on bread-and-butter issues — efforts to lower housing, child care and insulin costs — when they talk to voters back in their districts.
“People are understanding of the issues around infrastructure, but until we see shovels in the ground, I’m not sure people are going to fully see what that investment means,” said Democratic Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey, who called roads, bridges and tunnels the “lifeblood” of his state.
Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, one of the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle, has been touting the infrastructure package in constituent meetings and local media interviews, pointing to how it stands to help repair rural roads and upgrade water systems.
In a paid ad, Kelly touted it as a success story for Arizona that would improve commuting, trade and border security, a message other vulnerable Democrats in swing states have highlighted.
But asked Tuesday what voters care about most, Kelly said they’re “focused on costs of things which are really expensive: gasoline, prescription drugs, food.” And with the Supreme Court’s leaked majority opinion this week, he added that voters will also be focused on abortion rights.
Kelly faces a delicate balance over how much to attach himself to Biden and his policies given the president's unpopularity in the state, said Mike Noble, chief of research at OH Predictive Insights, which focuses on Arizona and Nevada politics.
“For Mark Kelly, I think the more Joe Biden can stay out of the Arizona Senate race, the better, because Biden’s at a record low job approval number since he’s taken office,” said Noble, who said he believes a Biden visit to the state could hurt more than help Kelly.
While infrastructure polled well in Arizona six to nine months ago, the economy now dominates the list of voter concerns following the spike in gas and food prices, with immigration becoming an increasing focus with the planned lifting of Title 42, Noble said, according to his voter surveys.
In Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Marie Cortez Masto faces a competitive race, Noble said voters are overwhelmingly concerned about the economy: The unemployment rate there exceeds the national average, and housing prices have increased more there than in nearly any other state.
“Infrastructure was a win, and so it makes sense to lead with that. However, all the indicators are really showing us that jobs in the economy and immigration are really going to be the top two main issues that voters in Nevada and Arizona,” Noble said.
Biden has sought to link the infrastructure bill to issues around the economy. He has made the case that spending on improving infrastructure at ports will help with supply chain backlogs and that the projects funded will create higher paying jobs. The White House sought to draw attention this month to how the law would fund manufacturing for electric vehicle batteries, lessening dependence of foreign oil amid record high gas prices.
Biden sees infrastructure as an important piece of his economic message and one that Democrats should be proactively using, said a person familiar with Biden's thinking. But it is also part of a broader message that includes addressing inflation to lower gas prices by increasing oil supply in the near term and investing in renewable energy, relieving supply chain disruptions and improving competitiveness with China, the person said.
“The President has achieved the unprecedented creation of over 8.3 million jobs in 15 months, the lowest unemployment in 50 years, a historic surge in small business growth, the most significant infrastructure law in generations, and a manufacturing resurgence,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement. “In terms of his policy agenda, he is working to lower costs for families like prescription drugs and energy, fight the global problem of inflation, and ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share.”
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a co-author of the infrastructure law, said in an interview he has been traveling through his state to sell the investments in broadband, bridge repair and charging stations.
“And you get a nice local press story,” he said, but adding that he’s uncertain it has “penetrated in a way that people realize how big this is, that we’ve been trying for 40 years to do this.
“Whether it’s something that people see that’s tangible and immediate and real enough for voting this fall, I don’t know. On the Democratic side, we’ve got a job of still trying to make the bigger sell,” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said leaders across the state, including in conservative areas, are pleased. Voters? He’s not so sure.
“Is it a top of the mind issue with every voter? No,” he said. “But when I meet with mayors and town council members, county boards of supervisors, including in a very red part of the state, they’re really glad.”
The law passed by a vote of 69 to 30 in August, winning all 50 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Numerous GOP senators who opposed the law and face re-election this fall told NBC News that the law has had no impact on the campaign trail.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and a top target of Democrats in 2022, who voted against the infrastructure law, said it “never comes up” on the campaign trail.
“They’re concerned about inflation. They’re concerned about record high gas prices. They’re concerned about not being able to find enough people to hire, not getting their component parts and their raw materials,” he said. “These people who support me appreciate the fact that I’m willing to say no on these massive spending packages.”
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who voted against the law and faces re-election this fall, said infrastructure funding is “a positive, but it’s not the topic of conversation.”
“People are happy if there was some infrastructure investment, but it’s not a topic that is raised, unless maybe you happen to be in the business,” he said.
In an NBC News poll from March, when voters were asked about the most important issue facing the country, the cost of living was the top issue, followed by the economy, the war in Ukraine and voting rights or election integrity.
When asked specifically about infrastructure, voters have generally viewed it as favorable. Deputy executive director for Priorities USA Nick Ahamed said in recent polls by his group the issue has done particularly well with Latino voters. In one survey by his super PAC 90 percent of Latino registered voters in six battleground states supported modernizing infrastructure and about three quarters thought it was important to defeat a candidate who opposed the infrastructure legislation.
But the challenge for Democrats will be to make it top of mind for voters come November.
“All of our signs are that voters like this policy, they like the jobs and the quality of the jobs that it will create and they also liked that it was passed in a bipartisan way and that they’re, I think, ready to reward candidates who supported it and punish candidates who opposed it,” said Ahamed.
“How do we make infrastructure, which we know the public is with us on, more salient to their vote in the fall than something you don’t agree with us on?”