By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; A26
Voters heading to the polls Tuesday have watched ads warning them about the threat of China and the dangers of illegal immigration. They have heard candidates rail against the stimulus bill, the new health-care law and the federal deficit. They have received phone calls at dinner time reminding them of one candidate's misdeed and another's ability to feel their pain.
But one issue is on their minds like no other this year: the economy. Nearly 40 percent of voters in a recent Washington Post poll rated the nation's fiscal situation as their top concern in the days leading to the election, a far higher proportion than those concerned about immigration, health care, Afghanistan, taxes, the deficit or dysfunction in Washington.
It is perhaps not surprising, considering that unemployment continues to hover around 9.6 percent and the housing market continues to flounder. Voters have been inundated with conflicting information that has instilled a level of anxiety about the nation's financial future.
On Monday, Americans got their latest dose when the Commerce Department announced that spending slowed and incomes fell in September for the first time since July 2009.
"The context is set by the dreadful economy and it affects everything else," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Republicans, he said, have tried to connect the economic concerns to "other issues that have been dealt with by the administration, which they argue have been harmful and contribute to the lack of jobs."
Early in the year, Democrats had planned to run for office on their record, particularly the passage of a health-care overhaul that had been a key Democratic priority for decades. Since then, however, the party has struggled against the perception that its leaders pursued the legislation against the will of the people and at the expense of the economic recovery.
"The economy and jobs have always been the central issue," said David Winston, a pollster who advises House Republican leaders. "The problem for the Obama administration, given that they have the bully pulpit, is that every time they were talking about health care and cap and trade, the public's reaction was, 'interesting, but not on topic.'â"
Republicans, meanwhile, tapped into the frustration and suspicion of the American people by arguing that the new law infringes on Americans' rights and impedes the economic recovery. They depicted it as a prime example of Washington dysfunction because of its narrow passage after weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling.
The dogged downturn has made it difficult for Democrats to defend their party's support of the economic stimulus bill and the Troubled Assets Relief Program - the financial bailout that buoyed the nation's banking system - though President Obama has asserted that the economic crisis would have been worse without both actions.
Some Democrats have also sought to distance themselves from environmental cap-and-trade legislation, which has grown unpopular because of fears that it would hurt private businesses and further hamper the economy. In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), who is running for Senate, literally took aim at the bill by shooting it with a gun in a television ad.
Four years ago, the Iraq war topped the list of voter concerns, and it was a boon to Democrats who swept into office over displeasure with Republicans' handling of the conflict. The economy has now supplanted such worries. In the Post poll, fewer than five percent of voters described "the situation in Afghanistan" as the most important issue in their vote for Congress.
In a measure of how the economy has overshadowed other concerns, it is the first year in a decade that no state has on the ballot a measure to ban gay marriage. The issue has emerged, however, in gubernatorial campaigns in Minnesota and Iowa. Also, Democrats in Wisconsin and elsewhere have tried to gain favor with liberal and moderate voters by painting their Republican opponents as anti-gay.
Terrorism, too, has taken a back seat for voters, despite a number of recent scares. An October CNN poll found that only 4 percent of voters consider terrorism the most important issue facing the country. Still, some candidates have raised concerns that lax border security could allow potential attackers to sneak in.
Some candidates have raised what they view as the cultural threat posed by Islam, as well as globalization and illegal immigration.
In Arizona, California and elsewhere, Republicans have taken a hard stance against illegal immigrants who, they contend, are draining public funds, committing crimes and taking American jobs. In the Post poll, only 4 percent of voters rated immigration as their top concern. Still, it is a powerful wedge issue that has also been used by Democrats in hopes of rallying Hispanic voters to their cause.
Both party's hopefuls in dozens of races have taken aim at China's economic growth, depicting it as a threat at a time when the United States's economic future appears uncertain. And Democrats have accused their opponents of supporting the outsourcing of jobs to India and other countries.