When asked "which one of the following issues will be most important in deciding your vote for Congress this fall?" 23 percent said the economy, compared to 14 percent who said Iraq and 12 percent who said terrorism. Health care at 11 percent and immigration at 9 percent were fourth and fifth, followed by 8 percent who named gas prices, which at that time had not begun their steep descent.
Notably, despite the deep pessimism that is supposed to be gripping the electorate this year, the same poll found that 58 percent of the voters said the quality of life for most people in their area was either "excellent" (11 percent) or "good" (47 percent), followed by 29 percent who said "only fair" and 12 percent who said "poor."
This isn't meant to suggest that Iraq and terrorism are no longer among the chief concerns that voters have in this election. "Depending on events of the moment, one may be first over the other, but these were the two top issues people were looking at when saying how they are going to vote," Winston said. But when gas prices continued to climb higher in the summer-vacation season, voter complaints about the economy climbed, too. "Those are the two top issues now, Iraq and the economy," Winston continued. "Those are the two areas that are leading people's concerns."
Now, however, with oil prices dropping to about $65 a barrel earlier this week from nearly $77 and gas prices falling to $2.40 a gallon in states like Ohio, there was growing speculation among Republican strategists that if gas costs continued to tumble, it would improve the political climate for the GOP's candidates.
"Gas prices is one of those issues that is very important as long as they are high. But when they drop, the issue falls off the radar screen. There has been a big drop here in gas prices down to about $2.50 in the last couple of weeks," said Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell, who sees GOP prospects improving there. That's why Winston, too, is seeing movement in the polls as a result of lower gas prices. "The more positive views people have of the economy, the more favorable the environment is for Republicans," he said.
Maybe that's why independent pollster John Zogby this week reported "last-minute Republican surges" in Senate races in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey "that may confound Democratic hopes of retaking the upper chamber of Congress."
Cheaper gas is not only good for the economy and consumer budgets but for Republican hopes of keeping control of Congress, too.