Inflation hit a 31-year high in October, but will it sway voters in the 2022 congressional elections?

Woman shopping in a grocery store aisle.

WASHINGTON – The United States is experiencing the highest rate of inflation since 1990, causing prices on everything from gas to food to increase, a trend that could influence how voters cast their ballots in the 2022 midterm elections. 

Prices for U.S. consumers jumped 6.2% in October compared with a year earlier – and were up 0.9% from September, according to numbers released last week by the Department of Labor. 

The numbers caused a stir in Washington, providing ammo for Republicans to attack parts of President Joe Biden's proposed domestic spending plan. But Democrats said the high rates give lawmakers more incentive to adopt Biden's agenda. 

"Many people remain unsettled by the economy, and we all know why. They see higher prices,” Biden said at the Port of Baltimore this month after the numbers were released. “Everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread cost more. It's worse even though wages are going up. We still face challenges.”

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While lawmakers in Washington debate how to address the problem, experts told USA TODAY that if inflation remains high, there's a chance it could play a pivotal role in congressional elections next year, when Republicans want to win enough seats to take control of both the House and Senate, which are now led by Democrats. 

The party in power typically takes the blame during periods of high inflation, the experts said.

Biden has suffered from sagging poll numbers in recent weeks. Results from a Morning Consult and POLITICO poll from July said 39% of registered voters found the Biden administration's policies to be "very responsible" for increasing inflation. Only 31% of registered voters approved of Biden's handling of the economy in a poll earlier this month from USA TODAY/Suffolk University, compared with 60% who said they disapproved. 

Tony Fratto, former assistant secretary of the Treasury Department, said inflation has political consequences.

"Unless things change, I won't be surprised to see it have an impact in the midterm elections this time next year," he said. 

Fratto pointed out that the country saw sustained high inflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that period, Democratic President Jimmy Carter defeated Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976. Republican President Ronald Reagan then defeated Carter in 1980.

"It was in fact very bad for the parties in power," Fratto said.

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He said Republicans have a story to tell voters going into the midterms while prices are increasing. 

"If inflation stays high, they have a fairly easy time because they can connect dots that start with the administration advocating and achieving some fairly significant spending programs and then inflation going up," he said. 

Voters are more concerned about inflation rates than other economic issues, Fratto said, because inflation is easy for people to understand when prices of everyday goods increase. 

"The political saliency of the issue is actually much greater than the economic impact right now," he said. 

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Republicans have made inflation a prominent point of attack in one of the most hotly contested races in the country next year. Incumbent Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, whose district include Des Moines, will face the winner of a Republican primary that has drawn several candidates in the redrawn 3rd Congressional District.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, at the U.S. Capitol.

The Cook Political Report, which analyzes congressional races, says the contest in Iowa is a toss-up.

A Republican Party of Iowa news release on Tuesday hit Axne over her support for Biden’s Build Back Better Act and some of her recent comments on inflation, saying that it will take decades for Iowans to “crawl out (of) this hole Democrats dug.”  

"Despite warning signs from economic experts, Axne and Biden keep marching us toward the largest tax hike in decades," spokesperson Kollin Crompton said in a statement. "Democrats believe the only way to fix problems is to throw trillions of dollars at the problem. In reality, they're the root cause." 

Axne, who announced her reelection campaign last week, has said she believes the Build Back Better Act, a roughly $2 trillion package of social spending programs that passed the House on Friday, and other supply-chain-related legislation she’s backing will help ease inflation.  

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“I think inflation is high because we're still dealing with this worldwide pandemic,” Axne said during a taping of the television program “Iowa Press” last week. “And folks need to realize that this isn’t just an issue here in America. Across the world we see worker shortages, supply chain issues and a problem with all of those areas.” 

For Peter Dale, a Democratic-leaning independent who lives in West Des Moines, it’s too early to say exactly how inflation may affect his vote. The 75-year-old retired health care worker said he has noticed prices going up and has had to do more planning for expenses.

“We have to get closer to the election, and I have to hear more from her (Axne) than I’ve heard in the past,” he said. “I’m just fairly disgusted with all of them.” 

Taylor Beeler, 23, a stay-at-home mom from Stuart, Iowa, was more eager to place the blame on the Biden administration's policies. She said she has seen her grocery bills rise substantially this year. 

“I think a lot of it is that COVID is used as an excuse for a lot of things,” she said of Democrats' explanations of how the pandemic has resulted in supply chain interruptions.

Beeler, who primarily votes Republican, said she believes inflation will influence her vote, but it won’t be the only issue she takes into consideration. Either way, she said, she plans to support Axne’s Republican challenger.

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A man wearing a medical mask while selecting produce in a grocery store.

Other voters are less certain inflation will remain a hot topic next fall. Courtney Lesher, 40, of Grimes, Iowa, who also leans Republican, said inflation may be the talk of the moment, but she believes people probably will move on to something else by next fall – even if high prices continue.   

"People are just going to get accustomed to paying $4 a gallon for gas and be like, 'Well, that's just the way it is,'" she said. 

Lesher said she's concerned by the trends but believes blaming a politician is too simplistic because inflation is a complex issue that involves other factors, like the pandemic.

She said that she doesn’t plan to base her vote solely on inflation and that she places more value on a candidate who is an independent thinker and doesn’t necessarily always follow their party’s lead. 

“I can’t be like, ‘Well, inflation sucks, so I hate Biden,’” she said. “There’s a lot of people responsible for that.” 

Mark Blyth, a Brown University professor of political science and international and public affairs, said that if inflation remains high next year, it will be on the forefront of voters' minds and could influence the results of the midterms.

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He added that it is hard to determine how much inflation will affect the midterms given the polarization in the country. He also said that if inflation stabilizes,  it won't be a big determining factor for how people vote. 

If the midterms were tomorrow, Jean Sitar of Washington, D.C., said inflation  would change how she would cast her ballot. 

"It has a very definite impact," she said. "What I used to be able to buy for $25, I now spend $32 to $33 on." 

Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said voters notice when inflation rates increase by even 4% to 5% when the prices of food, gas and other needs increase.

"The lack of inflation can help to put people in a good mood," he said. "The presence of substantial inflation can put them in a bad mood. When they're in a bad mood, they tend to turn on the incumbents."

He said high inflation can often be more damaging to the party in control. 

"People blame the people in charge – doesn't matter whether they're Democrats or Republicans, but whoever has the bad luck to be in charge during a period of high inflation, they will suffer," he said.

Gasoline is getting more expensive, adding to the U.S. economic inflation.

Jenzayi Miller, who lives in Columbia, Maryland, said inflation will not influence how she votes. She said she does not blame the Biden administration for the high prices. 

"I don't think that could be concentrated on what happened in the past eight months. It was way before that," Miller said. 

For Washington, D.C., resident Daniel Gordon, the high inflation rates will not change his vote. While Gordon said it "peeves" him that prices are so high, he attributes it to supply chain problems. 

"I'm determined to vote for him (Biden) in any case," he said. 

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If inflation settles down and returns to a more tolerable level, Sabato said he doubts many votes in November 2022 will be based on today's high prices.

"I don't think people will be focusing on that. They'll be focusing on whatever current problems exist," he said. 

But if levels stay high, Sabato said, inflation will have a significant effect on the midterms. 

"It's possible to imagine fall 2022 Democratic losses to a relative minimum," he said. "It's also possible to imagine a fall 2022 where they're going to lose in a landslide.

"We don't know what it's going to look like a year from now."