Midterm elections—those which occur near the midpoint of a president’s four-year term in the United States—are typically viewed by policymakers as a referendum on the president’s party. If citizens approve of the job the president is doing, his party typically fares well. If not, it doesn’t.
But this year, with a veritable bingo-card of polarizing issues on the table, might the midterms be viewed as a litmus test for voters’ morals, instead?
As the U.S. marches steadily toward Nov. 8, high-profile gun violence makes headlines again and again, a Congressional committee investigates the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that may well amount to criminal conspiracy, states restrict or outlaw abortion access, and hate crimes skyrocket, all while inflation reaches its highest point in decades.
What, among these issues, will matter most to voters? It’s likely to be the impact on their wallets.
“Economic considerations are rarely eclipsed as a top priority for voters in elections,” says Costas Panagopoulos, political science professor at Northeastern University. “That doesn’t mean that January 6 isn’t going to loom large in voters’ minds, but generally speaking, I don’t expect anything will exert as powerful an influence in November as gas prices, inflation, or other economic issues.”
His estimation is borne out in recent voter polls. A Quinnipiac poll from July 20 shows that 34 percent of all voters ranked inflation as the most urgent issue facing the country today. Voters ranked gun violence second (12 percent). No other issue reached double digits.
Taken separately, Democrats’ and Republicans’ priorities shift, however. The poll shows that among Republicans, inflation (48 percent) ranks first followed by immigration (16 percent) with no other issue reaching double digits.
Among Democrats, gun violence (22 percent) ranks first followed by abortion (14 percent), inflation (14 percent), election laws (12 percent), and climate change (11 percent).
And among independents, inflation (41 percent) ranks first with no other issue reaching double digits.
A recent Gallup poll also shows that the economy will weigh heavily on voters’ minds at the polls. According to Gallup, 85 percent of U.S. adults say that the economy is extremely (53 percent) or very (32 percent) important to their vote. Gun violence isn’t far behind, though: According to the same poll, 80 percent of U.S. adults say the issue is extremely (52 percent) or very (28 percent) important to their vote.
Still, unless voters are weighing in on a referendum question or a proposition, they’re rarely voting on a single issue. Come November, voters will need to select candidates whose platforms represent a gradient of positions on these issues. That means voters will need to make multidimensional choices, weighing their various values against each other to select a single candidate.
With so much on the line, is there a right way to make those tradeoffs?
“That’s a thorny philosophical question—but I suppose I am a philosopher,” says Rory Smead, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern. There may be right and wrong choices, he says, but each person’s evaluation will depend on their guiding principles. In other words, there’s no one answer, just answers that align with voters’ worldviews.
A utilitarian, for example, might weigh strong social programs above their own financial gain—and pick a candidate who supports expanding Medicare. Another voter might be interested in long-term Constitutional or legal changes, and vote for the candidate who’s most vocal about Supreme Court nominees.
“But politics is a noisy process,” says Smead, who is also the Ronald L. and Linda A. Rossetti Professor for the Humanities at Northeastern. “Even if a candidate wants to do something and their party has the power, they can’t always bring it about.”
On the best day, voting requires an “unbelievably difficult calculation, even for people who really have the time to tease out these issues.”
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