A majority – 51% – of likely voters said that the economy was the most important issue in determining how they will vote in the midterms. (The next biggest issue, abortion, drew just 15%.)
Hours later, President Joe Biden delivered a much-publicized address on the perils facing US democracy.
“We can’t take democracy for granted any longer,” he warned in a speech that set apocalyptic stakes for the coming election.
That contrast – between what’s on the mind of voters and what the president wants to talk about – was stark. Especially when you consider just 9% of likely voters in the CNN poll said that voting rights and election integrity were the most important issues to their vote for Congress.
Or when you consider this astounding data point from a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted last month: 71% of registered voters said that democracy was at risk, but a meager 7% said it was the most important issue facing the country.
What do numbers like that tell us? That, when prompted, voters may well be concerned about the state of our democracy, but it isn’t a top of mind issue for most of them. And it pales in comparison to economic concerns like inflation or the price of gas.
Even before Biden gave his democracy speech, Faiz Shakir, who served as campaign manager for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid, suggested that the president was missing the forest for the trees.
“I hope there’s some people at the White House watching,” Shakir said on MSNBC Wednesday afternoon. “I’d hope that they’re re-writing [the speech] and focusing on cost of living.”
Why, given the obvious economic concerns in the electorate, would Biden choose to close the campaign with a democracy-in-peril message? Honestly, because I think that’s what animates him and his presidency.
Biden’s entire justification to get in the 2020 presidential race was his fear of the damage Donald Trump had done and would do to democracy. Throughout the first two years of his presidency, Biden has spoken again and again about the threats facing democracy.
“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault,” Biden said in a speech in Philadelphia earlier this fall. “We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.”
And here’s the thing: He’s not wrong. There are election deniers running for office all across the country and, if they win, many of them will have the ability to influence how states conduct elections in 2024 and beyond.
The problem for Biden is that voters aren’t keyed into that threat. Or, they see it taking a back seat to more pressing daily concerns – particularly relating to their economic well-being.
The Point: Biden’s decision to use his bully pulpit – just days before the election! – to give a speech about democracy seems like a strategic blunder given what we know about the electorate and its priorities.