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Inflation, the economy, climate change, racism: Which issues matter most to voters on Election Day?

Hues of red and blue color the dawn at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. After months of primaries, campaign events and fundraising pleas, the midterm elections that will determine the balance of power in Washington and state capitals are finally here. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Inflation, the economy, climate change and racism are the top issues on the minds of Americans this election cycle, but how they rank in order or importance depends on which party you identify with, according to a new Northeastern-led survey.

That is, when asked to select from dozens of urgent issues, self-identified Republicans and independents both placed inflation and the economy above all others—“as their first and second most important issues,” the survey of more than 21,000 Americans found. 

When self-identified Democrats were asked to choose from the same list, which included a number of hot topics such as American democracy, women’s rights, police brutality and the COVID-19 pandemic, they selected climate change and racism as their top two issues, with inflation not far behind, in third place, the survey found. 

Researchers with the COVID States Project, a multi-university team of researchers working at the intersection of “computational social science, network science, public opinion polling, epidemiology, public health, communication, and political science,” polled individuals across all 50 states and the District of Columbia from Oct. 6 to Oct. 25 to gauge the most pressing issues facing the country this election cycle. The data was published on Friday.

Researchers reweighted the data using demographic characteristics to reflect the U.S. population as it relates to “2020 vote choice and turnout, race/ethnicity, age, gender, education, and living in urban, suburban, or rural areas,” they wrote.   

“This report details Americans’ responses to this ‘most important problem’ question, looking at overall responses, as well as responses broken down by political party, gender, age, race, income, and education,” researchers wrote. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that Republicans and Democrats greatly diverged in how high they ranked immigration, climate change, racism, inflation and the economy, which tracks with national party platform trends. Immigration and the beleaguered U.S. economy have become focal points in Republican campaigns this election. Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, for example, has seized on the issue of immigration to help shape his challenge to Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly—though nationally, the subject has taken a back seat to economic concerns. Meanwhile, Republicans challengers everywhere have used rising inflation as a rallying cry in the lead-up to Tuesday’s midterms. 

Democratic candidates, on the other hand, have tended to spotlight growing racial tensions, which has taken on renewed importance following George Floyd’s murder, and the climate crisis, among other things, in an effort to galvanize voters. The overturning of abortion protections following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization over the summer thrust abortion and reproductive rights back into the national conversation as well. Other recent polling puts the abortion right behind the economy.

Researchers found that men and women, on the whole, didn’t diverge as much as Republicans and Democrats in what they selected as the most important issues, but women were “significantly more likely” than men to list health care, women’s rights and abortion at the top of their lists, they wrote. 

And among respondents between the ages of 18 to 24, racism and abortion were most commonly picked as the two most important problems. For all other age groups, inflation carried the top spot. 

Black Americans were “significantly more likely than any other group” to say that racism was the most pressing issue, the research shows. Also, Asian American and Hispanic participants were far more likely to list racism than white respondents. 

Regardless of income, inflation was the top ranked issue for each income group, the research shows.   

David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences and co-author of the study, said the survey “really shows how inflation is a dominant issue for the midterms.”

As to the partisan divides, Lazer says that’s business as usual.

But, he adds, “there are striking generational differences with racism and abortion at the top of the list for younger people, and inflation for all other age cohorts.”

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