Voting & the economy

Is inflation swaying voters in battleground states? Here’s what we know.

Published Updated

Illustration: Andrea Brunty, USA TODAY Network; and Getty Images

Inflation is hampering Joannah Schumacher’s attempt at being a better citizen.

High gas prices have forced the Sparks, Nevada, resident to cut back on the number of seminars she attends as co-head of an effort helping people communicate with elected officials. She felt ashamed recently when she filled her car up with subsidized gas courtesy of a local nonprofit.

“I became the person who was being served,” she told USA TODAY. “But I just couldn't turn it down. That was my ability to go to multiple locations with a full tank of gas.”

The increasingly expensive cost of living is why Schumacher will be voting a straight Republican ticket this election unlike prior elections where she evaluated candidates based on the principles they stood for regardless of party. While she's now the head of the Nevada Republican Assembly, she's had a history of voting for Democrats, Republicans, independents, Libertarians and Green Party candidates.

A resident of a swing county in a swing state, she recognizes how crucial her vote is. Nevada voters will decide which party runs the Silver State, and they could determine whether the GOP wins back full control of Congress, including the Senate. Polls show gubernatorial and senatorial races in Nevada are among the tightest in the nation.

Inflation is undeniably high. And it’s having a direct effect on this year’s midterm election where control of Congress and dozens of governors’ mansions are at stake.

The gas Americans are filling their cars with to get to polling sites is costing nearly 20% more than last year. This comes as prices for goods and services are up 8.2% compared to last year. That's nearly a 40-year high.

The Federal Reserve is attempting to lower inflation by raising interest rates, but so far it's hardly budging.

Faces of inflation: America's aching economy is forcing tough choices. How people are 'barely making it' work.

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act which expanded Medicare benefits and increased home energy tax credits and rebates for Americans who purchase certain clean-energy appliances among other measures. No Republican lawmaker in the House or Senate voted for it – and many claimed the avalanche of new federal spending would only worsen inflation.

“Inflation remains the dominant economic concern for Americans,” a Pew Research Center survey of registered voters released Oct. 20 found. “In fact, the three top concerns, among seven items included, relate to prices – for food and consumer goods (73% are very concerned about this), gasoline and energy (69%) and the cost of housing (60%).”

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll of likely voters conducted in late October reached similar results: 61% reported they are eating out less often; 50% have postponed or canceled vacations, 47% have cut back on groceries, and 45% are driving less.

Hispanics have been hit particularly hard. Nearly 6 in 10 are foregoing vacations and driving less, and 44% say the economy is their top issue, more than either white or Black people, the poll found.

All of this is bad news for Democrats who were already facing a historical hurdle: the party in power almost always loses seats in Congress during the midterms.

In Nevada, trouble for Democrats over high gas, food prices

In Nevada, trouble for Democrats over high gas, food prices

They’ve already lost Schumacher who said voting for a third-party candidate is a vote for a Democrat.

“I can't in good conscience in this round vote for anybody but a Republican to ensure that we have somebody who's at least slightly fiscally conservative,” she said. 

Like many Americans, Schumacher, 50, who lives just outside of Reno, scrutinizes every purchase she makes at a time when just about everything is costing more. 

Joannah Schumacher stops to fill her tank with gas in Reno on Oct. 26, 2022.
Joannah Schumacher stops to fill her tank with gas in Reno on Oct. 26, 2022. JASON BEAN, RENO GAZETTE JOURNAL via USA TODAY NETWORK

Recently she was caught in a pickle over whether to buy celery, a staple with which she uses to make soup and snacks. But at nearly $2 a bag at her local Trader Joe’s, it just didn’t seem worth it, she said.  

“It was overpriced,” she said, adding that it “became a luxury item as opposed to something that I would normally get every day.”  

Gas prices are particularly troublesome. Of all states, Nevada has the third-highest gas prices, according to AAA data. That’s partially a result of the state sales taxes on gas, which are among the highest in the nation, according to the American Petroleum Institute. A gallon of regular gas costs $5.39 in her county, Washoe, as of Nov. 3. That’s $1.60 higher than the national average. 

Family photo

A parliamentarian who reviews and interprets the bylaws of professional associations and unions to determine what is permissible, Schumacher said she largely can weather inflation’s blow since she lives with her older brother, a postal worker, who covers most of their living expenses. But many of her friends aren’t as fortunate. 

She tries to host a friend for dinner frequently since he has become malnourished from not being able to afford the higher cost of food, she said. But he only comes once a month because gas costs so much to drive to her.

“If your money is worth less, you're heading to the Weimar Republic where you can't count on whether your $100 is going to get you a quarter tank of gas or an eighth of a tank of gas,” Schumacher said, referring to the financially unstable German government installed after World War I.

“I don't want to see our country go that route. And I think the only way that we can do that is to rein in the reckless, inflationary-causing spending that not only my local government is doing, but all the way up to the federal level.”

In New Hampshire, inflation isn’t always the magic bullet

In New Hampshire, inflation isn’t always the magic bullet

David Miller is feeling the effects of inflation particularly hard. The 61-year-old full-time police dispatcher from Littleton, New Hampshire, has had to take on an additional part-time job as a substitute teacher to keep up with the bills. 

He and his wife, Tina Miller, lived on their own in a financially comfortable household four years ago – until they fostered three children. 

“We took in three kids and it was supposed to be just a week or so,” said David Miller. Fast forward to today, and “we still have them.” 

David Miller of Littleton, N.H., 61, a police dispatcher, works a Sunday shift at the NH State Police barracks.
David Miller of Littleton, N.H., 61, a police dispatcher, works a Sunday shift at the NH State Police barracks. Josh Reynolds, USA TODAY

“We went from being a household of two to being a household of five," he told USA TODAY. "And with the way everything is, the prices are skyrocketing, prices of fuel, oil, groceries, things like that."

The Millers are paying $400 a week on groceries. The electric bill, which Tina recalls was $85 a month, is now $245 a month and they were notified that the bill will be going up by around 25%-30%. 

To make matters worse, the Millers can’t qualify for state assistance because they’re not related to the children. And fuel prices for a family of five aren't helping the budget.

“I’ve got a 24-mile round trip every day for work," he said. "And probably another 5 or 6 miles a day just running kids around to different places, practices and (sports) games.”

David Miller of Littleton, N.H., 61, looks on as his wife Tina Miller, left, and  Kah'leal Oliver, 8, center, one of three children that the Millers are caring for, prepare to go to a Sunday afternoon soccer game and David goes to work.
David Miller of Littleton, N.H., 61, looks on as his wife Tina Miller, left, and Kah'leal Oliver, 8, center, one of three children that the Millers are caring for, prepare to go to a Sunday afternoon soccer game and David goes to work. Josh Reynolds, USA TODAY

Tina Miller also is working two different jobs, one at an elementary school cafeteria and the other at a theme park. “That's 14 miles a day, and on the weekends, that’s 22, so a 44-mile round trip for on the weekends at that,” he said. “The gas costs don't take long to add up.” 

David Miller voted for President Donald Trump in 2020 because “we were better off financially” under his administration. So, the right-leaning, inflation-weary, blue-collar family man is voting for GOP Senate candidate Don Bolduc, a Trump loyalist, right?

Nope. He’s casting his ballot for Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan in a tight-knit contest that, just like Nevada, could decide which party controls the Senate.

Turns out it's not just inflation on the ballot for David Miller. Hassan's record of reaching across the aisle and Bolduc's embrace of Trump's groundless claims that the 2020 election was stolen have Miller voting blue this year.

“Maggie has always, I thought, done right by us,” said Miller, who’s been impressed by Hassan’s current tenure as senator. She’s campaigned on being ranked as the “most bipartisan senator.”

He thinks of Hassan as “fiscally responsible” and “willing to fight a losing battle with her party.”

It doesn’t help either that back in September, Republican voters in New Hampshire nominated Bolduc, who was seen as the weaker, more extreme candidate to take on Hassan. On Bolduc, he’s “just too far out there,” said Miller. “I just can’t support that.”

GOP argument: Hire us and inflation subsides

GOP argument: Hire us and inflation subsides

Because inflation has soared while Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, Republicans have not had to work hard to make their case that it’s time for a change.

They blame “runaway spending” in the form of hundreds of billions more in federal assistance for COVID-19 relief, transportation projects, climate initiatives and health care subsidies which Democrats defend as targeted relief for the nation’s most vulnerable.

“Every American needs to be asked this one question: ‘Could you afford to give up one month of your wages?’ Ninety-five percent of Americans will say no. But that’s what the Democrats have taken from you. Because one month of your wages is 8.3% of your overall year – inflation is higher than that,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. said on FOX News last month.

The House Republicans’ “Commitment to America” which GOP lawmakers unveiled in September is a broadly worded document that promises to increase energy production, “curb wasteful spending …and bring stability to the economy through pro-growth tax and deregulatory policies.”

It’s not clear how effective those policies will be even if Republicans somehow can get them through Congress and signed into law by Biden.

Part of the reason inflation is so difficult to tame is that Americans have, for the most part, been willing to pay higher prices for certain goods. And employers have doled out historically high wage increases to keep up with inflation but at the same time, it's enabling suppliers to continue to raise prices. 

Factors like the war in Ukraine and ongoing worker shortages are also contributing to inflation and complicating the Fed's ability to get a grip on the situation.

In Pennsylvania, swing district comes down to inflation vs. abortion

In Pennsylvania, swing district comes down to inflation vs. abortion

The black bridal gowns in the window of Bridals by Sandra aren’t a nod to the Halloween holiday that just passed or a reflection of the Lehigh Valley’s mood heading into another heated midterm.  

They are simply the latest bridal trend this Nazareth, Pennsylvania, store has seen since Sandra Yeakel opened the 10,000-square-foot store here on East Lawn Avenue in 1967.

Since then, the store has weathered numerous economic shifts, but none quite like the one hitting Americans now, according to Susan Powell, Yeakel’s daughter who now runs the business. The challenges are two-fold for a shop like Powell’s: some buyers are more cash-strapped during ongoing inflation and some of her merchandise is caught up in the pandemic-born, supply chain slog.  

Susan Powell and her mother, Sandra Yeakel, owners of Bridals by Sandra in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
Susan Powell and her mother, Sandra Yeakel, owners of Bridals by Sandra in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Susan Powell

“My shoe department is a nightmare,” she said. “Some of our products are still stuck on ships.”  

That’s bad news for fall brides in what is now the busiest wedding season in the northeast. When her mom opened the store 55 years ago, May and June were the big wedding months.

Her store is a microcosm of the lingering effects of a global pandemic and inflation that could drive voters to the polls next week in a consequential midterm that will determine which party controls Congress and, in turn, Biden’s economic agenda.

Nazareth is part of Northampton County, which is considered by pollsters and analysts as a bellwether of national politics. It’s about evenly split between red and blue voters, and it always seems to pick the winner for many elections.

And this year there are several pivotal ones, including a gubernatorial showdown between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano, and a Senate race between Mehmet Oz and Jon Fetterman that, like ones in Nevada and New Hampshire, could decide which party controls the chamber.

Congress illustration

Drive 2 miles in one direction from the store and you’ll see signs for Oz and Trump 2020 dotting front yards. Drive 2 miles in the other direction and there are signs for Shapiro and Fetterman.

“This area is very split,” Powell said.  

She’s one of the undecideds who will make up her mind when she casts a ballot on Tuesday.  

“I go left and right,” Powell said, noting that she usually avoids politics at work and it’s easy to do that with clients who are more focused on gowns than government.  

Powell said her view at the bridal shop gives her a look into how the economy is affecting voters. Some fathers come in and spare no expense for a custom-made gown for their daughters. Some brides come in only for a fitting and prefer to buy a $129 gown online for a backyard wedding. She also outfits many same-sex couples and cares about their rights.  

It’s all on the ballot this year, she said. The economy. Human rights. The dreams and futures of all the hopeful and happy brides- and grooms-to-be who come into Powell’s shop.

“Love is love,” she said. “I think we will all vote for a life we love and want to have.” 

For Dave Stoudt, a 50-year-old voter in Northampton borough, a suburb about 15 minutes north of Allentown, there’s nobody on the ballot talking about what’s most important to the independent-thinking Democrat.  

Dave Stoudt, a 50-year-old voter in Pennsylvania
I want to see someone who’s truly committed to working with the other party and a return to more civility in our politics.

“I want to see someone who’s truly committed to working with the other party and a return to more civility in our politics,” he said.  

He’s aware of inflation, which is more of a problem for his 23-year-old and 28-year-old children who are just starting out in their professional life. But as an athletic director in Allentown with an established career, he’s able to weather the economic fluctuations and it’s unlikely to impact his vote.  

“I’ll probably stick with Susan Wild,” Stoudt said of the incumbent Democratic congresswoman who is in a battleground House race with Republican challenger Lisa Scheller. The outcome of that race is likely to signal how widespread the gains for Republicans will be in their expected takeover of the House.

As a lifelong Northampton County resident and Lehigh Valley voter, Stoudt is seeing signs – literally and figuratively – in front yards and in conversations that indicate “it’s going to be a very close race.” 

That lines up with what Chris Borick is seeing as the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown.  

In Northampton County, the heart of Wild’s district, the House candidates are locked in a statistical dead heat. She has a 47% to 46% lead over Scheller in the recent October poll.

Four years ago, Wild won by 10 points. In 2020, she defeated Scheller by 4 points.  

But in this rematch, gerrymandering has moved the district to slightly favor Republicans, Borick said.  

The top issue among most voters has been inflation, he said, and voters who say that is their No. 1 issue overwhelmingly support Scheller.  

Voters who say their No. 1 issue is reproductive rights overwhelmingly support Wild, Borick said.  

“The question is whether abortion or the cost of living will be at the top of voters' minds when they vote,” he said. 

Published Updated