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.
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.
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