For voters, inflation is top of mind; Biden's signature legislation doesn't register

USA TODAY got exclusive access to focus groups in North Carolina, Nevada and Wisconsin. Inflation topped the concerns of voters who participated.

  • Voters in three battleground states said inflation is a top concern in their daily lives.
  • Focus group participants said canceling student loan debt could persuade them to vote for Democrats.
  • Voters said they are wary of sending American aide to Ukraine.

Six months ahead of the midterm elections and fresh off of the latest inflation report, voters in three battleground states are anxious about how inflation impacts their daily lives – a worrying sign for Democrats who are attempting to hold onto control of Congress.

In the same week when March data showed U.S. inflation had hit another 40-year high, voters in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Nevada said the rising costs of fuel, rent and groceries are critical issues that need to be resolved, according to focus groups conducted by Navigator Research, a progressive polling group, and GBAO, a progressive research firm.

USA TODAY observed the North Carolina and Nevada focus groups and got a first look at the results of the Wisconsin survey participants. All three of the groups stressed that bringing down inflation rates will be key to Democrats if they wish to make inroads with disaffected voters before the midterm elections.

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Democrats face an uphill climb to retainthe 221-209 majority they have in the House and the 50-50 split in the Senate. Republicans only need a net gain of five seats in the House to gain control. A loss of control in either chamber will likely lead to Republicans blocking President Joe Biden’s agenda in the second half of his presidency.

It could all come down to whether or not voters punish Democrats over inflation.

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Inflation 'frustrating' American's ability to rebound   

In the Democrat-leaning focus group in Nevada, some participants described disappointment with the Democratic Party’s leadership.

One Nevada woman succinctly called the economy “terrible.”

“It's not good. It makes me scared. We just got told today that our insurance costs (are) going up 15%,” said a Nevada man. “I don't know what's going to happen.”

The latest inflation report – showing the consumer price index jumped 8.5% annually, the fastest pace since December 1981 – reflected the hardship many Americans are suffering through. And it brought further headaches for Democrats.

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A North Carolina man, part of the Republican-leaning focus group, mentioned the index's 8.5% leap. He also said he received a 5% raise this year. But inflation has blunted the impact of the raise.

“In actuality, that money – it's not necessarily a pay cut – but I’m behind where I was a year ago if I compare that to inflation numbers,” he said. “So that's very frustrating.” 

Bryan Bennett, senior director of polling and analytics for Navigator Research, told USA TODAY the focus group’s pessimism on the economy is in line with past surveys the group has conducted. But he was caught off guard by how much inflation rates stood out with voters.

“I was personally surprised by hearing the news that the CPI was up 8.5% year over year. Typically, that kind of specific economic information doesn't break through to that degree,” said Bennett.

Another potentially worrisome sign for Democrats: When the focus groups were shown statistics highlighting the economic rebound – including the record-breaking 6 million jobs created last year – participants were not impressed.

“I don't think that the economy's doing any better than it was two years ago. If anything, I feel like it's worse because of inflation,” one North Carolina woman said.

Likewise, in the Democratic-leaning Nevada group, a few people said their opinions on the economy's health didn’t change after learning about the rebound.

“We need to have a conversation about inflation,” said one woman. “If we're not making enough money to get gas and everything then we won’t be able to pay the rent eventually.”

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Corporations also blamed for inflation

But there was a bright spot for Democrats: In the Wisconsin focus group of independents, one participant noted that corporations should be blamed for the rising food and gas costs.

“Who's responsible? It's not the consumer. It's the companies, corporations. COVID, everything is blamed on COVID. So COVID is responsible,” said a Wisconsin woman.

"Businesses, corporations. Yes. They're making record profits. For us, the people, the consumer, there are few people that are making money. But the corporations are making profits. Paying zero taxes," the woman added. 

Groundwork Collaborative released a report last month that slammed corporations that “jack up prices and pad their record-breaking profits.” In February the group along with Data for Progress released a poll showing 63% of those surveyed believe “large corporations are taking advantage of the pandemic to raise prices unfairly and increase profits.”

Lindsay Owens, executive director of the progressive economic group Groundwork Collaborative, said congressional Democrats should pass legislation before November to address rising child care, health care and housing costs, as well as taking on corporate price gouging.

“Congress gets back in session next week. And they should get down to the floor as soon as possible to vote for legislation to bring down costs for families and to take on corporate profiteering,” Owens said. “These focus groups should really light a fire under that.”

Student loan crisis a top priority across political parties

Republican and Democratic voters in North Carolina and Nevada both discussed the ways that student loan debt impacts their lives negatively.

When asked what would help Democrats win their vote in the midterm, one woman in the North Carolina group said that canceling student loan debt could persuade her to vote for Democrats.

Earlier this month, Biden extended the moratorium on federal student loan payments through Aug. 31. Congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have advocated for the president to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt through executive authority.

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“Biden has done a fantastic job with assisting us in extending the student loan repayment option because the economy is such trash still. However, if it ends in August, it's still not going to help us once August comes,” said a Nevada woman.

Adam Hilton, a political professor at Mount Holyoke College who studies the Democratic Party, said student loan debt cancellation is an issue that Biden could take action on before the midterms.

“If Democrats want people to know that they've done something for them, then that's something they need to do before November,” Hilton said.

Biden hasn’t forgiven student loan debt:Advocates warn it could hurt Democrats in elections.

No talk of historic legislation passed by Democrats 

What neither of the focus groups observed by USA TODAY discussed was the legislation that Biden and Democrats have passed since 2020 and have touted as meeting the public’s needs.

None of the participants mentioned the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, or the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation. They also didn’t mention the $1.75 trillion social and climate legislation, Build Back Better, in any capacity.

“I think that is a warning sign,” Navigator’s Bennett said. “But I also think (it’s an) opportunity to be laser-focused on that and that there are issues where they can make inroads if they can be more precise in the way that they're communicating about them.”

Sarah Baron, campaign director for Unrig Our Economy, a recently launched group that aims to fix the economy by holding corporations and the super rich accountable, said she is not surprised by the lack of discussion on Democratic legislation.

“To put it plainly, I don't think what Democrats have been doing is working,” Baron said. “Without connecting these economic policies that we talk about, which are singularly popular, actually to improving the individual economic situation, we're going to continue operating at this credibility deficit.”

Similarly, Hilton said Democrats are in a tough spot when it comes to inflation and he doesn't expect Democrats to do well in November.

"I just don't know what the winning formula for the Democrats can be here. They don't have a powerful enough coalition to try and revive labor unions, they weren't able to get Build Back Better through," Hilton said. 

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Sending aid to Ukraine not exactly popular with swing voters 

Most participants in the focus groups said they were sympathetic toward the war in Ukraine. However, several also said they wanted the U.S. to deal with internal problems before handling foreign policy.

“Why is it always on us doing so much when we have our own issues here?” asked one Nevada woman.

In a separate focus group of Latino men hosted by another progressive organization, one participant echoed those remarks. “America meddles in so many other countries and we kind of neglect our own,” said one participant. 

The Biden administration has pledged $3.2 billion to Ukraine since Biden took office. Just recently, the president pledged $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including weapons and ammunition.

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Baron said Democrats can overcome voter apathy if they can show voters the connection between corporation price gouging and the war in Ukraine.

“It's because you've got a handful of oil and gas companies that are having a free fall right now. They are having the best Easter or Passover weekend of their lives,” Baron said. “We need to call out that connection.”

Bennett said the crisis in Ukraine is similar to the months just before COVID-19 upended the world in 2020.

"The same thing, I think, is very largely true for the situation in Ukraine, which is it's very difficult to know how this will have impacts in the long term," he said.