WASHINGTON -- In the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton's cunning campaign strategist James Carville summed up the pivotal issue with the now immortal words, "It's the economy, stupid." Carville's admonition, which was emblazoned on the walls of Clinton's fabled campaign "war room," could well apply to this year's congressional elections, too.
While the political battles of the moment are about the war in Iraq and the threat of another terrorist attack, several polls found that the voters' overwhelming concern heading into September was the U.S. economy's performance. It has been getting consistently poor marks from voters all year despite sturdy growth (an annual year-over-year rate of more than 3.5 percent) and low unemployment (4.7 percent).
But pollsters conducting internal election surveys for the Republicans told me these persistently sour voter attitudes about the economy have begun to improve. One reason: Significantly lower oil and gasoline prices that fell sharply last week as a result of increased drilling production, rosier forecasts of fewer Gulf storms that could threaten the operation of offshore oil rigs and an easing of global tensions over the oil-rich Middle East.
"We're seeing that, as gas prices have come down, attitudes about the direction of the economy have improved," said pollster David Winston, who does election-issue polling for the GOP.
Voter concern about the top two or three issues has moved in tandem with events in Iraq, the foiled terrorist bomb plot in Great Britain and soaring oil and gas prices that topped $3 a gallon for regular earlier this year. And for the past year, Iraq, terrorism and the economy jockeyed for first place.
But lately, even as President Bush and the Democrats ratcheted up the political rhetoric over Iraq and terrorism, polls began to show that Americans were actually more concerned about the economy and pocketbook issues closer to home.
When the CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted Sept. 4-5 asked 1,004 Americans what issue was most important to their congressional vote, 28 percent said the economy, followed by Iraq at 25 percent and terrorism at 18 percent. Moral issues (15 percent) and immigration (14 percent) were fourth and fifth, respectively.
The same poll showed voters giving the economy failing grades, with 56 percent rating it "poor," compared to 44 percent who said it was "good."
A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 registered voters conducted Aug. 29-30 reported similar findings about what troubles people most.