How did Democrats avoid a midterms backlash over inflation?

Abortion and candidate quality played a major role, experts said.

November 16, 2022, 6:09 AM

A red wave in the midterm elections propelled by discontent over sky-high inflation was expected to deliver a historic defeat for Democrats – until it didn't.

Typically the party in control of the White House suffers significant losses in the midterm elections. In this case, some analysts expected the disadvantage for Democrats to prove greater than usual, since inflation stood near a 40-year high and recession fears abounded.

Days before the election, polls validated that concern. Roughly half of Americans said either the economy or inflation was the most important issue in their vote for Congress, making bread-and-butter financial issues by far the most dominant, according to an ABC News/Ipsos survey.

Instead, the Democrats are projected to control the Senate; and while Republicans lead in the race for a House majority, that chamber has yet to be decided.

The apparent lack of a voter backlash against Democrats over inflation stems in part from the priority placed on other issues as well as the struggles of candidates backed by former President Donald Trump, experts told ABC News.

But the results also suggest that inflation motivated voters less than many expected, perhaps because savings have cushioned the financial pain and the job market remains fairly robust, some experts said.

Here's why the Democrats eluded a voter backlash over inflation, according to experts:

Abortion, candidate quality play outsized role

A top reason why Democrats avoided a midterms landslide over inflation has nothing to do with the price hikes, experts told ABC News. Instead, voters prioritized other issues like abortion or formed judgments based on the candidates on offer in a given race.

On election day, 32% of voters said inflation was their most important issue but abortion followed close behind at 27%, while voters also mentioned crime, immigration and gun policy, an ABC News exit poll showed.

Moreover, more than two-thirds of voters said democracy in the U.S. is threatened, the exit poll found.

Inflation less motivating to voters

Another reason why Democrats avoided punishment at the polls over inflation is that the issue appeared to motivate voters less than expected, in part because some analysts overstated the typical role of inflation in midterm elections, experts said.

Further, some analysts and media outlets may have overstated the degree of financial pain inflicted by inflation, since savings carried over from the pandemic have softened the blow of high prices, some experts said.

Historically, the height or change of inflation has not been linked with the performance of the president's party in the midterms, Matt Grossman, a professor of political science at Michigan State University who studies the role of inflation in electoral politics, told ABC News.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.
President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.
Susan Walsh/AP

However, academics have tied gas prices to presidential approval rating, which in turn marks a key indicator for the midterm performance of the party in control of the White House, Grossman added.

While gas prices declined over the final few weeks of the campaign, they remained elevated on election day. Only 44% approved of Biden's presidency, among the lowest midterm approval ratings in 40 years.

Voters may have held Biden responsible for high prices but forwent placing blame on congressional candidates, Grossman said.

The lower-than-expected voter motivation based on the midterms owes in part to household savings that have mitigated some of the damage, some experts said.

U.S. households amassed about $2.3 trillion in savings in 2020 and 2021, a Federal Reserve study showed last month. Moreover, households in the lower half of income distribution were still holding a combined $350 billion in excess savings as of the middle of this year, the study found.

Zandi, of Moody Analytics, estimated that inflation has added about $500 per month in costs on average for a U.S. household compared with a year ago.

"It's financially tough," he said. "Excess savings built up during the pandemic certainly have cushioned the blow."

Labor market remains fairly strong

Despite sky-high inflation and rising interest rates, the labor market remains fairly robust. While the jobs added each month have fallen over the second half of this year, they remain strong, keeping the unemployment rate below 4%.

The lack of a voter backlash against Democrats over the economy suggests that the pain imposed by inflation may be offset in part by the high level of employment, experts told ABC News.

"The topline take from the midterms from an economic perspective is that full employment matters," Felicia Wong, the president and CEO of the left-leaning nonprofit Roosevelt Forward, told ABC News.

Wong contrasted the results of the midterms last week with the midterm election in 2010, when then-President Barack Obama oversaw an economy with a 9.6% unemployment rate in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession. In what Obama later described as a "shellacking," Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House.

"Inflation is a financial corrosive for all Americans, but it's not an acute pain," Zandi said. "Unemployment is a very acute pain when people are affected by it."

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