A year marked by a collective yearning to return to pre-pandemic normalcy has brought a new, epic challenge for U.S. consumers who have been pummeled by inflation rates not seen since the economic drudgery of the early ’80s.
And as the 2022 midterm elections fast approach, along with plenty of early prognostications of who may earn a spot on the ’24 presidential ticket, a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll finds that money woes are at the top of many voters’ minds when it comes to choosing a batch of fresh (or not) federal policymakers.
Those concerns have been driven by U.S. inflation that’s been on a tear throughout 2022 with the most recent report from the Labor Department pegging June inflation at 9.1%, the highest year-over-year price escalation since 1981.
Mountain West states, which include Utah, continue to have some of the highest regional inflation in the country with the average prices of goods and services rising 9.9% in June, up from 9.4% in May.
U.S. consumers are now paying for groceries that are 10.4% pricier than last year, gas that’s up nearly 60% over 2021 and shelter expenses that have risen 5.6% since June 2021.
The statewide survey, conducted July 13-18 by Dan Jones and Associates of 801 registered Utah voters, found the economy was the No. 1 policy issue on the minds of Utahns when it comes to contemplating how they will cast upcoming votes.
The polling data comes with a plus or minus 3.46% margin of error.
For congressional candidates, 24% of poll respondents rated the economy as their top concern with “view of the federal government” the most important issue for 18% of survey participants. Rounding out the top five issues when it comes to choosing U.S. House and Senate representation were gun control/Second Amendment issues at 12%; environmental protection, 8%; and education and health care both earning ratings as the top voting issues from 6% of survey takers.
Utah voters, as a whole, see the economy as an even bigger issue when it comes to thinking about casting their next presidential vote, even with the start of the 2024 primary season still nearly two years out.
The economy led out for 35% of respondents as the issue most important to them when making a presidential selection with “other” the next most chosen category. Environmental protection was the top pick for 8% of poll participants followed by gun control/Second Amendment issues at 8%; health care and abortion tied with 6% as the top issue for poll takers, and education and immigration also drew even as a top priority for 5% of those polled.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the serious economic concerns shared by Utah voters in their poll responses is reflective of what’s happening at the national level ahead of the midterm election cycle.
“The economy is obviously a major factor across the country right now and, really, what we’re talking about is inflation,” Burbank said. “Inflation is something that voters are clearly worried about and it’s very much a realistic concern, given the effect on gas and grocery prices. These are cost impacts people experience every day and every week.
“Even recognizing that there’s not a whole lot that federal elected officials can do about inflation, it’s still effective for Republicans who would like to make the midterms about the president and dissatisfaction with him on this issue of inflation.”
Burbank noted that economic issues are frequently at or near the top of the list of voter concerns ahead of every election cycle, but that determining how those concerns play out in the political battleground is much more nuanced than what can be captured in a public opinion poll.
While economic concerns were at the top of the list for the entire poll sample set, some marked differences can be seen when sorting respondents by political affiliation.
While the economy was the top issue to both voting questions for respondents who identified as Republicans, those who identified as Democrats ranked environmental concerns as the most important issue when it comes to choosing their top congressional and presidential candidates.
Burbank said the partisan priority difference is in keeping with what he’s seeing nationally with Democratic Party members and their leadership, who have made addressing climate change and environmental issues a top priority and, he noted, also especially reflective of concerns shared by Utah Democrats.
“The environment is one of those things that Democrats, in general, tend to see as a really important issue and thanks to demographics of Utah Democrats, that is particularly true here,” Burbank said. “Democrats in the state tend to be younger voters and voters who are more broadly concerned with the environment and issues related to climate change. And, at the moment, these issues are very important to Democrats.”
Phil Dean, public finance senior research fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said ongoing price increases that have impacted virtually every category of consumer goods and services over the past year has replaced COVID-19 as the top concern for consumers in Utah and across the country.
“Early on in the pandemic, the public health challenge was top of mind for most people,” Dean said. “As pandemic worries began waning a little over a year ago, we started seeing the shift into high inflation. Now, the economy has replaced COVID-19 as the top issue and I believe that will continue to be the case until inflation gets under control.”
Correction: A graphic in a previous version incorrectly stated the poll was conducted in June. It was conducted in July.