NDN’s Saliency Index, 4th Edition – COVID, Economy Top Issues, Inflation Secondary For Dems

Summary – In our new edition of the NDN Saliency Index COVID and the economy remain the dominant issues for all voters.  For Democrats COVID, the economy, health care and climate are the top the issues, with inflation once again clocking in as a secondary concern.  

Given that our findings about inflation continue to run counter to conventional wisdom, we try to offer up an explanation in our notes below on how it keeps showing up in this analysis as a secondary concern in the Democratic electorate. 

NDN’s 4th Saliency Index - from Jan 24th Navigator Research prompted question, “Which of these issues do you feel President Biden and Congress to focus on?”

Notes on the data/methodology – Our Index takes the raw Navigator data from its prompted question #29 “Which of these issues do you feel President Biden and Congress to focus on?” and creates a modeled Democratic and Republican electorate from the 4 answers provided by each respondent.  Our model assumes a typical swing state/district Democratic electorate will be 80% Democrats, 15% Independents, 5% Republicans, and a typical R electorate the inverse, 80% Republican, 15% Independent, 5% Democrats. 

These models are meant to be illustrative and not predictive.  Every state and district will have its own unique electorate.  But our goal here is to help political analysts go a bit deeper on what is often very simplistic national polling data, and help provide a better understanding of the issue priorities in the electorates candidates in each party will actually be talking to this fall.  You can find more on the methodology here, and review our last Saliency report from early December. Feel free to offer feedback on this analysis by emailing Simon at srosenberg@ndn.org.  We view this work as experimental and provisional, and are open to any and all feedback. 

In this poll Navigator added Education and Voting Rights to the prompts, changed “Climate Change and Extreme Weather” to “Climate Change and the Environment,” and changed “Violent Crime” to “Crime.”  The economic prompt is “Jobs and the Economy,” and the abbreviated prompts above are “Jobs and the Economy,” “Social Security and Medicare” and “Government Corruption.”  We continue to believe a “Deficit” or “Federal Debt” prompt would be useful. 

Key Takeaways

Different Information Universes/What’s Popular Is Not Always What’s Important – As we review the data each time we continue to be struck by how different the information universes are for Democratic and Republican campaigns.  While we all know this conceptually, we find this analysis really brings it out. 

In this report COVID is almost twice as important to Dem voters as Rs.  Two top tier Dem issues – climate/extreme weather and health care – barely register for Republicans.  Three top tier GOP issues – immigration, inflation and national security – are lower tier issues for Democrats. 

It’s our hope that Democrats will use these findings and attempt to replicate it in their own races.  At a very top line, it’s our experience that in our very noisy information environment a candidate – or a President – can really only convey a few key ideas or arguments.  Understanding what’s important to voters is a like a road map for elected officials and candidates. It is where they need to live in their free and paid media to be responsive to what is on their voters’ minds.

We are providing this data in part to counter what we think has become an overreliance on popularity as a central metric in Democratic politics this past year.  Issues can be popular but not important, and spending a great deal of time on something that is of secondary concern to voters can be very risky. This data suggests that for Democrats they have to be talking about COVID, jobs and the economy, climate and health care – that is where our voters are now.  We discuss the limitations of ‘popularity” in this recent essay.

Inflation Continues To Be A Secondary Concern In The Democratic Electorate – If a candidate were to be operating off the Navigator findings for all voters, inflation would a top tier concern.  But in the Democratic electorate, it just isn’t, and hasn’t been for months.  We’ve thought a lot about this finding, as we know it is cutting against conventional wisdom right now.  Here is our attempt to explain the data……

In early December Navigator asked whether inflation was being driven by disruptions due to COVID or Biden economic policies and voters in the modeled Democratic electorate choose COVID over US government policy by 70-21 (link).  So, for these voters, you defeat inflation by defeating COVID, which they view as by and away the #1 issue.  This logic is why we continue to believe that Democrats should be talking about inflation/supply chain/worker shortages through a COVID/recovery frame; and, for example, more aggressively challenge Republicans to help us tackle inflation by beating COVID here and everywhere in the world. 

It’s been our argument for months that for Democrats there really isn’t a politics yet outside the COVID/recovery frame.  This 4th Index report continues to support that basic insight. 

We also wonder whether the big variance in how the two coalitions understand inflation right now may be more than the distorting effect of right wing media.  As we write in this recent post, because the biggest jumps in inflation have come from gas and cars, GOP exurban and rural voters may be experiencing inflation more intensely than voters in urban and suburban areas who drive less.  Republicans also have a higher percentage of older voters in their coalition, and those fixed incomes are always much more sensitive to rising inflation.

On the Democratic side, a few things to consider: real wages for the bottom half of wage earners in 2021 rose (link), meaning that for those in the bottom half of the workforce their wages beat inflation last year. Many received additional help through enhanced unemployment benefits and the Child Tax Credit. Democratic homeowners and those who own stock also came out ahead, as both housing and all major stock indices far outpaced inflation.  We are also less reliant on cars and gas, so our voters just didn’t experience the most debilitating parts of how inflation manifested last year as Republicans did. 

So, again, not only are Democrats not hearing as much about inflation as Republican voters are, they simply may not be experiencing it the same way.  It may be more acute with Republican voters.  And certainly as the economic section below shows, Democrats are much bullish on the current economy than Republicans.  We just aren’t in the same place here. 

In a new column Paul Krugman comes down in a similar place to where we come down – there just isn’t a lot of economic data to back up the idea that inflation is causing searing pain, as like what happens when you lose a job, health insurance or a loved one to COVID, or like it did during the 1970s in a very different economy.  In this formulation inflation today may be best characterized as lessening the gains of a booming economy, one of the best of the past 70-80 years.  But the notion that inflation is doing harm, real harm, seems to be outside both the economic and attitudinal data here. 

The core goal of this Saliency Index project is to establish that while all issues are important some just matter more to people.  And it is possible that is what we are finding here.  Inflation matters to our voters but not just as much as other issues.

So how should Dems think about inflation? We don’t think it should be an area of primary engagement.  Instead, we think we should stay focused on defeating COVID, securing the recovery and doing a far better job of making the American people, their grit, their resilience, their can do spirit in a time of adversity the big story of the 2022 elections.  For those who believe we need to make a deeper connect to the struggle of folks, we agree – but we think it needs to be through the COVID/recovery lens.  COVID has been far more disruptive to our lives than inflation, and we just can’t spooked by right wing talking points here. We need to be the party that leads the nation through this COVID challenge and helps us come out the other side, successfully. It is what we were elected to do, what our electorate wants us focused on.  And our voters believe that the way we best tackle inflation is by defeating COVID – so it all works together. We address inflation fears by keeping focused on ending the COVID, doing we all can to get the American people through this terrible scourge. 

Implicit in this analysis would be that Democrats should not make “lowering costs” central to the narrative going forward.  It can be used as a response or defense, but making it a primary area of engagement helps reinforce the central attack line Republicans are using to attack the success of the President’s economic plan.  We continue to believe there is no real politics f or Democrats right now outside the COVID/recovery frame; and that we must do a far better job selling the success of Biden’s economic plan and be far less defensive in doing so. 

Realize not everyone will agree with this take, but just following the data here, trying to make sense of it all.   

Climate Change remains a top Dem concern – we’ve gone back and looked Navigator polling since May and all throughout Climate Change has been in the upper tier of issues in the Democratic electorate.   This is a bit of sea change, and something which deserves far more attention and discussion in the center-left family.  It is, of course, a welcome development. 

The Democratic Electorate Is Much More Positive on the Economy – so we ran our model against a different Navigator question, this one asking whether the economy is getting better, same, worse.  The results are pretty interesting: 

Economy                 All     Modeled D   Modeled R

Getter Better            17         25                  9

Same                       23         30                 15

Getter Worse           54         39                 72

So, for all voters, it’s 40% Better/Same, 54% Worse.  For the Dem electorate it’s 55% Better/Same, 39% Worse.  Completely different information universe here, and like in so many areas the intensity of GOP views can distort one’s understanding of where the Democratic electorate is without going through a modeling exercise like this.  The Dem electorate is also net positive on whether they were confident in their personal finances, 50%-46%.