Polling data for Tuesday’s midterm elections indicate that inflation, particularly rising food prices, is the top issue driving voter behavior in key races — something political analysts say could spell doom for Democrats’ chances. As the cost of groceries has increased 13% over the past year, many voters list it as their biggest concern.
Midterm elections have historically resulted in the party controlling the White House losing seats in Congress, and rising inflation makes that trend even harder for Democrats to overcome, according to Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University.
“When people assess who they’re going to vote for, they often think about how the economy’s doing, and food prices in particular are a very immediate way to judge that issue,” Wagner said.
Among voters polled, 36% said inflation is the most urgent issue facing the country today, according to a Qunnipiac University poll released this week. The second most pressing issue to voters, abortion, trailed at 10%. Similarly, an October Pew Research poll found that 73% of Americans are very concerned about the price of food and consumer goods, which was more than the share of voters concerned with gasoline and housing prices.
Republican candidates nationwide have seized on food inflation as a key talking point in high profile U.S. congressional and Senate races, linking the rising prices to policies embraced by President Joe Biden — and Democrats at large.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate in the highly watched Pennsylvania Senate race, has criticized Democratic opponent John Fetterman for not working to address voter concerns about inflation. Specifically, Oz highlighted high food costs in a campaign video earlier this year discussing the price of crudité, which drew mixed reactions from critics.
But Fetterman has addressed food prices by shifting the blame to corporations, alleging they are driving up prices unreasonably in order to profit. In July, he slammed Tyson Foods for posting $1 billion in profits the previous quarter, while consumers were paying $7 for a hot dog.
Mike Lux, a strategist for Democratic candidates, said Fetterman — as well as Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan of Ohio — have succeeded in framing the higher prices as the result of Big Food monopolies. That is a way Democrats can win the messaging war on food inflation, Lux said.
“Fetterman has done a great job talking about how it hits his family hard every time he goes to a grocery store, and that he has a plan to counter rising prices,” Lux said. “I think that’s a winning message.”
But that message requires the voter to be paying close attention to industry dynamics, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. The corporate profiteering message is harder to explain, he said, and Democratic candidates would rather focus away from the economy and toward issues like abortion and gun rights where voters may tilt in their favor.
“But they’re having a hard time getting people to take their eyes off what they see when they get to the checkout counter at the grocery store,” Bullock said.
The complex reasons that food prices have risen, such as global supply chain backlogs and weather woes, are challenging to convey to voters in an easily digestible way, according to Bilal Sekou, a political science professor at the University of Hartford.
“Democrats have the difficult task of trying to explain the policies that they think will bring down inflation, but for a lot of people, none of that really matters if what they’re paying for food and gas is higher than a year ago,” Sekou said.
While President Biden has consistently said lowering prices is a top priority of his administration, in February of this year he said in a statement that prices would ease “substantially by the end of 2022” based on forecasted projections. However, all grocery categories continued to see price increases. Prices of meat, for example, rose by 11.5% since February, according to Datasembly’s Grocery Price Index. According to University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket, Biden could have made more of an effort to be more upfront with the public in explaining the causes of inflation and that it would persist for the foreseeable future.
“Even that, though, probably wouldn’t sink through with many voters,” Masket said. “It’s hard to convince people that it’s not the incumbent’s fault.”