Sometimes you hit the campaign trail and there’s an issue that voters care so much about that its dominance is inevitable. In 2006, opposition to the Iraq war was growing. In 2010, there was a backlash against big government spending and bailouts, along with fears of what Obamacare would look like. This year, the concern about affordability is deep.
That’s not to say that other issues, from abortion to crime to the climate and beyond, don’t matter much to voters, but the anxiety about the high cost of the basics is palpable.
We found this out after traveling to five major states since Labor Day weekend: Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Nevada and Arizona. We covered competitive races and talked to countless voters at booths, gas stations, grocery store parking lots, construction sites, outdoor markets, and more.
“I drive a truck and it doesn’t get very good gas. I actually had to quit my last job because I couldn’t afford to drive all the way,” Amanda Cleaver told us at the Michigan State Fair over Labor Day weekend.
Greg Steyer, sitting with a group of friends at Bud’s restaurant in Defiance, Ohio, also expressed his dismay.
“Why is the price of gas where it is today?” asked Steyer in the second week of September.
“You can’t ignore that problem,” he added.
As Joseph San Clemente loaded his groceries into his car in a Virginia Beach parking lot in late September, he couldn’t beat the prices of what he had just bought.
“Vegetables have increased to 20 to 30%,” he said. “Farm producers don’t carry the things they made last year, because people don’t have money.”
Dave Dent, who runs a construction company in Tucson, Arizona, said in late October that inflation in his line of work is 30%.
And Maria Melgoza, who cleans houses in Las Vegas, told us how difficult it is to pay the neighbors these days.
“Food is high, gas is high, rent is high,” he said in Spanish.
We hear from many frustrated voters, especially among working-class and rural voters, who feel neglected by politicians in Washington.
“I was born in a union house. My dad was a gang member for 30 years, he voted Democrat. But they’re completely out of step with what everyday Americans want,” lamented Jason Fetke in Virginia Beach.
A current union member we met with in Toledo, Ohio, says he will vote Democratic this year, but feels that not enough is being done yet.
“I think there should be a lot more focus on working class people,” Joe Stallbaum said.
“We always seem to fall behind for the high or the low,” he added.
Then there is the issue of abortion. It may not be the main motivation of every voter we’ve met, but it’s certainly a motivating factor.
At a lunchtime outdoor plaza with food trucks and a band in Toledo, Ohio, several people answered “abortion” when asked what’s most important in this election year.
“Making sure women still have a choice,” Ashley Lindsley told us. “I think with everything that’s happened recently at the Supreme Court, it’s really important to put people who stand up for women’s rights in office.”
In Arizona, a state with several critical races: governor, Senate and, where we were, a close congressional race, some women argued that they believe the issue of abortion is stronger than it appears in public opinion polls.
“I think a lot of women are not ready to go out in public and wave signs and do everything, but they will come to the voting booth and vote their conscience, and that’s it. it counts,” said one voter.
When we met Dick Rossell near Detroit in early September, he told us he hadn’t decided who to vote for in the state governor’s race.
He said he leans Republican but doesn’t like the fact that GOP candidate Tudor Dixon is staunchly anti-abortion.
“I think there are times when women’s lives are at stake and when there are dire situations it needs to happen,” Rossell told us at the time.
When we checked in with him earlier this week, he had already voted for Dixon, a Republican. He told us that the reason he felt comfortable doing so was because of a ballot initiative in Michigan that allowed abortion; he also voted for it. Dixon explained that he still has “a problem” with anti-abortion, but accepting a referendum that could have taken the issue out of his hands “made a difference,” Rossell told us.
That’s not the dynamic Democrats were hoping for when they pushed for abortion rights on the ballot there. Their strategy was to increase the turnout of Democratic candidates like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
But Rossell took the vote for Tudor as a green light.
“I liked everything about him about the economy and the things that he would try to fix and the things that we’re having a problem with in Michigan right now,” Rossell said of Dixon.
“I’m on a fixed income. I’m a totally disabled veteran of the Vietnam War, so I get a veteran’s pension and Social Security,” said Rossell, who said he’s grateful.
“But when you’re living on any kind of fixed income, it hurts when gas prices double, when groceries go up 20%. I don’t care what you’re doing now,” he added.
To be sure, we’ve also met voters who don’t blame Democrats for hard times.
“I think he’s doing the best he can with the tools he has,” Crystal Rodriguez told us in Virginia Beach as she picked up boxes of clothes her children had removed from the car to donate to charity.
At a nearby gas station, Ryan Farmer had a similar opinion.
“I don’t care who the president is. Gas prices are going to be expensive, it is what it is now,” Farmer said as he filled his tank. “I think so,” he added.
A month later in western Nevada, Agnes Wilson told us the same thing. He is worried about reaching the extremes. But he also voted for Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is locked in a tight race against Republican Adam Laxalt.
“I think they’re going to do a good job,” Wilson said.
It was one of two school crossings we met in East Las Vegas helping students navigate the busy intersection.
The other, James Kieffer, is so fed up with both parties that he says he has no intention of voting.
“They are not talking about what they will do. All they talk about is slandering each other about the money they earn,” he said.
It’s a missed opportunity for both parties in a state like Nevada, where every vote will likely matter in a tight-knit Senate race over who controls Washington.
But most of the people we met on the battlefields we visited were planning to vote. They were engaged in the issues and knowledgeable about the candidates – they were passionate about voting and what was at stake. That’s always good.