The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Culture wars could be a winning issue — for Democrats

Recent polling shows that gun control and abortion rights are bolstering voter motivations

President Biden addressed access to reproductive health care on Aug. 3 with members of his Cabinet. (Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg)

The top lines for Democrats continue to be brutal heading into the November midterm elections: Voters are furious about inflation, they overwhelmingly believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, and President Biden is not at all a popular figure.

But based on recent polling, the issue matrix has shifted enough to provide Democrats some hope that they can limit some of their potential losses and outperform expectations, especially in statewide races for the U.S. Senate and governorships.

In an ironic twist, those issues giving them a fighting chance are what traditionally would be considered elements of the “culture wars” that Republicans previously considered their winning talking points. But a wave of mass shootings and the Supreme Court’s watershed ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade have vaulted gun violence and abortion rights way up the charts in terms of voter importance. Those two matters now rank just below the most important issue concerning voters: inflation and stabilizing the economy.

“Election 2022 will hinge on which party is able to show they are taking meaningful action to stabilize the economy, lower inflation costs (housing, gas, and food), reduce gun violence and protect a woman’s right to choose,” Joel Benenson and Neil Newhouse write in a summary of their new, bipartisan research.

Benenson ran polling for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Newhouse went up against him in 2012 as Mitt Romney’s lead pollster. Over the past year, they have paired up to do regular research for Center Forward, a centrist think tank.

In late July, they studied voters in 14 battleground states, compiling both a traditional data set on all voters and then a 37-page examination of “non-prime voters” in those states — that is, people who do not vote in every election.

To be sure, Democrats have a huge hurdle to overcome on the economy. As most other polling has shown, voters are furious about runaway inflation. That’s easily the most animating issue in the nation, with 46 percent of voters saying “stabilizing” the economy is one of the two most important issues right now.

The pollsters found that 44 percent of voters “strongly disapprove” of Biden’s job performance, while only 19 percent “strongly approve,” and, furthermore, just 44 percent of Democrats “strongly approve” of Biden’s achievements.

That’s an upside-down position heading into midterms when Biden and Democrats will depend on motivating hardcore partisans to get to the polls.

“The softer they approve of the president,” Newhouse, a co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, said, “the harder it is to turn them out.”

But their work also shows a surging interest among Democratic voters and many independents toward gun control and protecting abortion rights. It’s the type of polling and research that backs up what happened Tuesday in Kansas, when voters in the otherwise very conservative state overwhelmingly approved retaining abortion rights in their state constitution.

How Kansas became a bellwether for abortion rights

Benenson and Newhouse found that on that same voter-priority question, 26 percent chose “protecting a woman’s right” to abortion access as a top issue — essentially tying border security as the No. 2 issue, behind the economy. Just 9 percent of voters chose the antiabortion position as a top-tier issue, giving Democrats a big edge on this front.

Democratic voters in these battleground states now rank abortion rights as, far and away, their most important policy topic, selected by 45 percent as one of their two most important national issues. Perhaps more important for Democratic candidates, independent voters chose protecting abortion rights as their second-most important issue (trailing inflation/the economy), giving their candidates an opening to appeal to those voters.

Benenson, the CEO of Benenson Strategy Group, thinks Democrats can successfully paint certain GOP candidates as particularly extreme on the touchpoint cultural issue of abortion, particularly those who oppose exemptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

“When it comes to extremism, Republicans have the bigger problem as a party, not the Democrats,” Benenson said in a joint interview with Newhouse on Tuesday afternoon, before the Kansas results came in.

Earlier, in their October surveys, Newhouse and Benenson essentially foreshadowed the disastrous off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey by noting how out of line the Democratic agenda and Democratic voter interests were with independent voters.

Independent voters in the fall chose the inflationary economy and border security as their top two issues, with pandemic recovery as their third issue; Democratic voters chose climate change, taxing the rich and pandemic recovery as their top concerns.

The agenda then — a more than $2 trillion package trying to reshape health care, battle climate change, improve child care, and other domestic issues — felt too big, too vast for middle-of-the-road voters who were worried about inflation.

“The conversation in Washington doesn’t match the conversation that’s happening around the country,” Newhouse said at the time.

Now, Democrats appear better aligned with independent voters on their issues.

Beyond just what should be the top priorities, the polling duo also measured issues on the basis of what will most motivate voters to choose candidates. Independents top motivators are, of course, addressing inflation and the economy, but their fourth and sixth most animating subject matters are stricter gun laws and protecting abortion rights.

Those latter two issues have now vaulted to the very top of the most motivating issues for Democrats, followed by inflation, while the perennial key issue for liberals, climate change, fell into the bottom tier.

(The pandemic, for what it’s worth, no longer concerns any voting bloc. Democrats, independents and Republicans are not ranking it among their 10 most motivating issues.)

Smart Democrats, however, are careful not to overstate these findings, because inflation and concerns about potential job losses in this shaky economy hugely dominate the mind-set of battleground voters.

If Biden and congressional Democrats cannot blunt some of the inflation anger, voters are likely to tune out their appeals on guns and abortion.

That’s why they have tried to rebrand the slimmed-down version of their agenda “the Inflation Reduction Act,” a compromise hashed out with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and centrist Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Its key components include providing hundreds of billions in funding to battle climate change, allowing Medicare to negotiate for cheaper prescription drugs and shoring up health-care markets — while raising taxes on corporations to help reduce the deficit.

None of these measures will help slow inflation by the November elections, however, leaving Democrats vulnerable to the whims of global energy markets and clogged supply chains.

And independent voters do not rate the details of the Inflation Reduction Act as particularly important: lowering prescription drug prices came in ninth among motivating issues, according to Benenson and Newhouse, while climate change does not rank in the top 10.

How the Schumer-Manchin climate bill might affect you and change the U.S.

Democrats hope that this spate of recent legislative productivity — including bipartisan majorities passing laws to help the semiconductor industry and to help veterans of overseas wars who experience health problems — will appeal to their liberal base.

Those voters might not be able to save the House majority, which is being fought over in outer suburban and exurban districts. But if liberals in cities and inner suburbs turn out in bigger numbers than their current malaise suggests, Democratic candidates for Senate and governor could receive key boosts from what used to be the GOP’s secret weapon: cultural issues.

When it comes to non-prime voters, the pollsters discovered a particularly demoralized bloc. They love their country, but they view the political system as filled with candidates who do not represent their interests and see elections as often not worth the trouble.

These voters do lean toward Republicans, but they just are so cynical toward the system they probably won’t vote.

“The emotional barriers will be especially key to overcome,” Benenson and Newhouse write.