By Lee H. Hamilton
A recent column in the New York Times argued that American voters “haven’t been worried like this in a long time” and that their fears could have a big influence in the 2022 elections. It’s certainly true that voters have a lot to be concerned about – and that our fears and worries affect how we vote.
For elected officials, the question is, what should they do about it? If they neglect Americans’ deeply felt concerns, they’re likely to pay for it at the polls. They need to take these worries at face value and show they will work to address them.
What are voters concerned about? The economy is always a focus, as it should be. Voters always care about maintaining a decent standard of living. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, a strategist posted a sign at campaign headquarters that read, “The economy, stupid.” It was a reminder to stay focused on what mattered to voters.
Back then, the nation was in a recession. Today, the concern is inflation, which is the highest it’s been in 40 years. The economy may be growing, but that’s an abstraction to most people. Inflation is personal: We feel it when we buy groceries or fill up the gas tank. Just two years after COVID-19 largely shut down American commerce, confidence in the economy remains shaky.
Government spending is another concern. A recent poll found that 80% of Americans favor a balanced budget. That’s a challenge, of course; there are many worthy causes for spending public money, but no one wants to raise taxes to pay for them. But we spend hundreds of billions of dollars for interest on the national debt, which crowds out spending for worthwhile programs. Deficits matter and need to be managed.
Another important concern is security. Violent crime rates are much lower than they were 30 years ago, but they have been rising in some cities, and people worry about their safety. Concern for security ties in with immigration. If Americans think we have open borders, it can create a sense of disorder and lawlessness. Government should help people feel safe and secure. Voters expect as much.
A third focus is education. The political party that is seen as doing a better job on education gets a leg up at election time. Education in the United States is primarily a state and local concern, but national leaders can do their part to support it. In the long run, education is tied to the economy. States and regions with strong education experience more robust economic growth.
Cultural issues, including abortion, religion and others, sometimes become prominent, as we saw with the leak of a draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. I don’t think these issues rise to the same level as the economy and security for influencing elections, but they are foremost to some highly motivated voters.
Foreign policy is not usually as important in elections as domestic policy, but it can be pivotal. Russia’s war in Ukraine has vaulted forward in public attention in a very short time. Polls show that most Americans approve of the government’s response to the invasion, but many worry about a widening war involving nuclear-armed Russia. A recent poll found that Americans are almost as fearful of nuclear weapons as they are of inflation.
All these concerns will be in play in this year’s elections, which will determine control of the House and Senate and set the course for Joe Biden’s presidency. We might argue that voters’ concerns are exaggerated: that the economy is solid, inflation is transitory, crime rates are low and immigration is good for America. But fear and worry are powerful emotions. Politicians ignore them at their peril.