When the Democrats embarked on their January 6 media extravaganza earlier this year, there were two schools of thought.
If you read more Democratic-friendly press outlets, the series of sometimes-prime-time hearings were all part of a canny electoral strategy to fire up the party’s base, while also exposing to Republicans and Donald Trump–leaning independents just how criminal, irresponsible, and unfit for office the former president was. If you read left-wing outlets like Jacobin, the hearings, while no doubt revealing some important facts, were a failure of political theater that neglected to address the economic concerns that most preoccupied ordinary Americans, but cemented the Democrats as a party still obsessed with a year-ago riot that vanishingly few voters cared about.
Less than a month out from the midterms, the points made by Jacobin and other left critics seem to have aged far better. According to the latest Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have both seen their approval plateau, while public approval of the GOP has ticked up four points in the last four months. Biden is now the third-most favored political figure in the country, trailing behind, astonishingly, Donald Trump himself and even former vice president Mike Pence.
But more pertinent are the survey results on specific issues. For voters, the most important matters are inflation (37 percent), the economy and jobs (29 percent), and immigration (23 percent). The topics of January 6, cancel culture, and foreign policy rank right down the bottom in single digits, at nineteenth, twenty-second, and twenty-third out of twenty-seven options, respectively.
It gets more damning when you look at what those same voters see as the top priorities of the two parties. What voters perceive as Republicans’ main concerns roughly overlap with their own, in the aggregate, with immigration (37 percent), inflation (24 percent), and the economy and jobs (21 percent) in the top three. For the Democrats, however ― traditionally the US party meant to represent the poor and working class, and in the middle of what is supposed to be a transformation back to its New Deal–era roots ― voters see them as most preoccupied with January 6 (27 percent), women’s rights (25 percent), and the environment or climate change (23 percent). The economy and jobs (15 percent) and inflation (14 percent) rank a distant fifth and seventh.
These results are echoed in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, which gives the GOP a 49 to 45 percent lead over Democrats in the upcoming midterms, after Democrats registered a one-point edge in the previous poll. According to the Times, economic issues had rocketed up the priority list for voters since the summer, and those who saw it as their chief concern intended to vote for Republicans this November by a more than two-to-one margin. The most dramatic shift had come from female independents, previously the bedrock of the Democrats’ suburban strategy, who went from supporting Democrats by a fourteen-point margin to backing Republicans by eighteen points.
It’s not that these women voters don’t care about the Supreme Court’s June gutting of abortion rights. In fact, 84 percent of the Harvard/Harris respondents considered it important to their vote (with 55 percent considering it “very important”) and “women’s rights” — a category that is usually seen as encompassing abortion rights — are the fifth-most important issue for all voters surveyed. But as one female voter told the Times, even though she disagreed “1,000 percent” with the court’s decision, “I’m more worried about other things.”
This is far from the first time we’ve gotten indications of this. Back in July, a different Times/Siena poll similarly found that voters most concerned with the economy — a group that included a significant number of non-white voters — preferred GOP control of Congress to that of the Democrats by a nearly two-to-one margin, even as most of them believed abortion should be legal. That poll showed that in a major shift since the party’s post–New Deal days, Democrats were, instead, most dominant among white, college-educated voters, who were overwhelmingly concerned with guns, abortion, and threats to democracy over bread-and-butter economic issues.
A recent Washington Post/ABC poll got a similar result, finding that even as the economy and inflation were by far the most important issues for registered voters as they decided how to vote, and even as those voters viewed the Democrats as holding views on abortion closest to their own, they trusted Democrats far less than Republicans on both of those issues. A Monmouth University survey likewise found that out of Republican, independent, and Democratic voters, only the last group put “fundamental rights and democratic processes” ahead of concerns about the economy and cost of living.
Besides the fact that the Left was correct to criticize the Democrats’ overwrought fixation on January 6, there are a few other important takeaways here. One is that as inflation has worsened, hitting 8.2 percent in September, more and more voters are gravitating toward politicians who put the economy front and center in their messaging. Unfortunately for the Democrats, that’s not them, with a recent analysis finding that GOP candidates and political groups have spent $44 million since Labor Day on TV ads about inflation and the economy, compared to just $12 million by Democrats, who have instead focused on ads about abortion rights.
Secondly, while Democrats and other voters clearly do, and are correct to, care about abortion rights and threats to democracy, these critical issues are understandably less relevant to the daily lives of Americans struggling through a less-than-robust economy. They’re instead consumed by more immediate concerns about whether they’ll be able to afford rent for another month, or be able to give their kids a decent meal, or if they have enough saved up in case they lose their job or disaster hits. This points to the backward nature of the Democrats’ plans for protecting abortion rights and democracy, to the extent that this is the party’s genuine overriding goal: by failing to appeal to or even do all that much to alleviate these financial struggles, the Democrats end up inadvertently empowering the very reactionary forces most hostile to those principles, whom otherwise pro-women, pro-democracy voters are willing to vote for if they seem like they’ll do a better job guaranteeing their economic security.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was, predictably and dishonestly, attacked for making a variation of this point earlier this month, when he warned that while “Democrats must continue to focus on the right of women to control their own bodies,” it was “political malpractice” to listen to those voices urging them to focus only on that one issue, and to then ignore the wider economic dislocation facing working Americans. In fact, by doing so, the party was rejecting one of the clearest lessons of the 2020 election, when it managed to win the Georgian Senate races and secure flimsy control of the Senate on the back of a populist campaign devised by the Left that sought to make new stimulus checks “the central issue in the Georgia Senate runoffs.”
Finally, this recent polling suggests the phenomenon of elevating issues low on the US public’s list of concerns goes beyond just January 6. “Cancel culture” languishes at the bottom of the Harvard/Harris respondents’ list of important issues, despite the Right’s monomaniacal addiction to the topic, to the point of delusional hysteria. “Foreign policy” is right there with it, especially consequential for a Biden administration that has been criticized for its foot-dragging on trying to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine, a position that is likely at least partially motivated by electoral concerns.
Polls can be wrong, of course — though if that’s the case, they tend to be increasingly wrong in the Republicans’ favor lately — and there’s still a few more weeks to go before the election. Perhaps things will end up more rosy for the Democrats than these numbers suggest. But it’s undeniable that the trend lines aren’t encouraging for the Democrats, and if they’re borne out in the election results, it should prompt some serious soul-searching among the party about not just their ongoing hostility to economic populism, but their entire strategy of shifting their base from working-class voters to affluent college graduates in the suburbs.
Just kidding. This is the Democratic Party we’re talking about, after all.