Democrats Are Not Talking About the Economic Issues That Most Americans Care About

In the lead-up to the midterms, Americans’ number-one issue is the economy and the squeeze they’re feeling thanks to inflation. Republicans get this and are making that squeeze their top-line message. Why aren’t Democrats?

President Joe Biden speaks at the Volvo Group powertrain manufacturing facility in Hagerstown, Maryland, on Friday, October 7, 2022. (Craig Hudson / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Even as polling shows Americans’ top concern in the upcoming midterm is the economy, Democrats have barely amplified any message on the issue in their midterm House and Senate election advertising campaigns, according to new data reviewed by us.

Republican candidates and political groups have spent $44 million on TV ads focused on the economy and inflation since Labor Day, according to a tally from AdImpact, which tracks campaign spending throughout the country. In the same period, Democrats have spotlighted these issues in just $12 million worth of ads, less than 7 percent of the party’s total ad spending during that time. The party has put another $18 million into ads mentioning jobs and infrastructure — but overall, Republicans are significantly outspending them on messaging around economic issues.

The takeaway is clear: caught between a bad economy and not wanting to offend big donors, Democrats have not aired a unified populist message hammering the business profiteering fueling inflation. Instead, they have spent much of their resources — $67 million — on ads related to abortion rights, a topic of heightened significance after the repeal of Roe v. Wade, but one that does not raise the ire of their corporate sponsors nor generate as much interest from midterm voters this year, according to recent survey data.

The lack of focus from Democrats on the economy and inflation comes as recent polls from the Washington Post and Monmouth University found that the top two most important issues among voters are the economy and inflation — far outpacing abortion.

According to the Post poll, 54 percent of voters say they trust Republicans more than Democrats to handle the economy, compared to 37 percent who say they trust Democrats more on the issue. In 2020, voters were evenly split on whom they would trust to better handle the economy, between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

The discordance between voters’ economic anxiety and Democrats’ ads is so acute, that even one of the party establishment’s own voices recently spoke up to sound an alarm.

“Abortion is an extraordinarily important issue that has galvanized many voters and shaken up the midterms,” tweeted David Axelrod, the Democratic consultant who architected the anti-populist politics of President Barack Obama. “But it isn’t the ONLY issue. And Democrats who are relying on it as a silver bullet may come up short.”

“Falling Even Further Behind”

Americans’ focus on the economy in the midterms should come as no surprise, given that government figures show workers are facing the harshest cost-of-living conditions in a quarter century, and a staggering number of Americans are having trouble paying their bills.

“A majority of workers are finding their wages falling even further behind inflation,” said a recent Federal Reserve study, issuing an uncharacteristically loud warning for the typically muted bank. “While the past 25 years have witnessed episodes that show either a greater incidence or larger magnitude of real wage declines, the current time period is unparalleled in terms of the challenge employed workers face.”

The latest survey data from the US Census Bureau similarly found that more than 40 percent of US households say it’s now very or somewhat difficult to pay their typical household expenses. That figure has increased roughly 50 percent since spring 2021, when the government began cutting off COVID-19 pandemic aid.

Inflation has significantly accelerated since then, and Americans are experiencing higher prices everywhere in their daily lives. In the past year, the cost of health insurance has increased a record 28 percent, rent has increased 7 percent, and groceries have increased 13 percent.

Although gasoline prices have cooled since summer highs, they have still increased 18 percent since last year. Utility gas prices are up 33 percent.

The Fed has hiked interest rates five times this year, with the express intent of driving down wages. Fed Chair Jay Powell, who was appointed by Donald Trump and renominated by Joe Biden, has been transparent that he wants to “get wages down” — something he reiterated in a press conference last month — in order to get prices down.

It’s not clear how the Fed’s actions will drive down the costs of basic necessities like rent, food, or health insurance. In fact, higher interest rates may be exacerbating the housing crisis.

Thanks to the rate hikes, Americans are facing these higher costs with reduced labor power and declining wages, as inflation continues to get worse. If the Fed keeps increasing rates, it will inevitably lead to higher unemployment, too.

Meanwhile, corporations continue to enjoy record profits, which has been the primary driver of inflation all along.

“Overwhelmed by the Rising Costs My Family Faces Every Day”

Having controlled both Congress and the White House during the past two turbulent financial years, at first glance it might seem like Democrats are being wise to avoid focusing on the economy. But in truth, they do not have to go silent on inflation — on the contrary, some Democratic candidates and groups have shown they can craft compelling messages on the issue in their ads:

• Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman has run an ad declaring that “our economy is a mess because of Washington — the rich, powerful, the insiders, and the lobbyists,” adding: “They set the rules, weakened our supply chain, and spiked inflation.”

• Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) says, “Coloradans are facing record prices while corporations are raking in record profits. I know sometimes it feels like no one is listening. That’s why I’m fighting to end the billions in subsidies given to big oil.”

• Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC tied to Democratic Senate leaders, has funded an ad asserting that Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) has “allowed oil and drug companies to jack up prices on us.”

But these spots are the exception, rather than the rule — and they are being drowned out by the GOP’s more targeted campaign.

Republicans have not only poured tens of millions into ads about crime and law enforcement, they have spent nearly four times as much as Democrats on ads about the economy and inflation.

For instance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the Senate GOP’s party committee, has run a series of inflation-themed ads targeting vulnerable Democrats.

“I’m a mother of four and I work part time,” says an ad opposing Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH). “My big family uses a lot of gas, and we buy lots of groceries. I’m overwhelmed by the rising costs my family faces every day, and that’s why I can’t support Maggie Hassan.”

The ad claims Hassan “sent inflation through the roof and left families like mine struggling to keep up.”

An NRSC ad targeting Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) says he “gave Joe Biden all power in Washington — Senate, White House Congress, and it’s wrecking our country. Trillions of dollars in reckless spending, and inflation crushing family budgets.”

Similarly, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s super PAC, has run an ad targeting Representative Dina Titus (D-NV) on inflation, too. “The economists said excessive spending would lead to inflation, but she didn’t listen,” says the ad campaign, which adds: “Now we’re paying the price. Higher prices on everything. Economy in recession.”