Cost of living, economy looms large for Georgia voters, AJC poll finds

Pocketbook issues rank among voters’ top concerns in AJC poll of Peach State voters, though there are stark divides by age, race, income and political affiliation
Workers prepare forms near 17th Street in West Midtown Atlanta on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, where Southeastern Development Brokerage Consulting is developing a mixed-use project called UrbA ATL which will have 321 luxury apartments and about 27,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Workers prepare forms near 17th Street in West Midtown Atlanta on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, where Southeastern Development Brokerage Consulting is developing a mixed-use project called UrbA ATL which will have 321 luxury apartments and about 27,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. (John Spink/AJC)

People’s pocketbooks are not just top of mind at the grocery store, gas station or dinner table. They’ll be paramount at the polls this election cycle.

A plurality of Georgia voters see economic issues, including inflation and the cost of living, as the most important factors driving their choice in November’s presidential election, according to a poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The survey found Donald Trump with a slight lead in Georgia over President Joe Biden, although voters were split among ideological and partisan lines on who they blamed for sticker shock and any perceived financial woes.

Inflation spiked globally amid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. While price increases have been painful, the U.S. has fared far better than most developed countries. By most measures, the U.S. economy is historically strong. The unemployment rate in the U.S. and in Georgia are also lower than they were before the pandemic when Trump was president.

Many voters who spoke with the AJC in interviews ahead of Thursday’s first presidential debate said the pandemic intensified economic hardships, but only some have felt the subsequent recovery. Some acknowledged the pandemic has clouded how everyone views the economy.

“The economy has been pretty [expletive],” said Barton Mingledorff, a 41-year-old craft beer salesman and jujitsu coach in Newton County who plans to vote for Trump. “But it’s always going to be clear as mud because you had the pandemic.”

Crowds streamed into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Friday, June 28, 2024, which is expected to be a peak day in the Fourth of July travel period. Credit: John Spink /

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Credit: John Spink

The survey, which included conversations with 1,000 likely voters from June 11-20, was administered by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Many issues swirl around the race between Democratic incumbent Biden and Trump, his Republican predecessor in the White House. But a combined about 42% of respondents said the most crucial issues for them are economic — 26% pegging the cost of living and 16% selecting jobs.

Those worries overshadowed questions about Trump’s felony conviction in New York, his support for the Jan. 6 insurrection, as well as his appointment of U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. The economy also eclipsed arguments about Biden’s handling of the nation’s border.

“I don’t think that presidents have as much influence on the economy as people think,” said Steve Dorvee, a 67-year-old retired lawyer from Fulton County. He described himself as a “Reagan Republican” who will be voting for Biden.

“There’s some hiccups, but his unemployment numbers have stayed low, and the stock market has cruised right along,” he continued. “[The economy] seems to be doing well, but people don’t believe it.”

President Joe Biden, right, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, participate in a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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Credit: AP

Biden’s halting performance in Thursday’s presidential debate in Atlanta was the top story of the night.

But the contest began with both candidates trading blows on their economic records. Biden said he inherited “an economy that was in freefall” when Trump left office.

“The economy collapsed. There were no jobs. Unemployment rate rose to 15%. It was terrible,” he said. “And so what we had to do is try to put things back together again.”

Trump falsely claimed job gains under Democratic policies were going solely to people in the country illegally. Trump said that he created “the greatest economy in the history of our country” before the pandemic, and blamed Biden for price increases in its wake.

“He’s not done a good job,” Trump said. “He’s done a poor job and inflation is killing our country. It is absolutely killing us.”

Trust in numbers

Voter concerns underscored the tension between data and anecdote — the difference between statistics illuminating the economy and the experience of individuals grappling with their own circumstances. The data gives a general picture, while some people do better than average and others fare worse.

Overall, the past year has seen low unemployment and wages overall outpacing inflation. But David Morris, a Pierce County teacher and football coach, said he hasn’t felt that.

“A few years ago, gas prices were not as high,” said Morris, who sees reasons to vote for both candidates. “We do get cost of living raises occasionally, but they do not keep up with the cost of living.”

And while both the Georgia and national economies have grown solidly during the past year, nearly half of respondents said they are financially worse off now than they were a year ago. Just 19% said they are better off, while 33% said their finances are about the same.

Some doubt the official statistics that show growth and low unemployment.

“I believe we’re working in a false economy right now,” said Stephen Archer, a 48-year-old machinist from Cobb County, who supports Trump. “I don’t believe these are true numbers.”

The most pessimistic in the AJC survey were younger people, whites and workers who did not go beyond a high school education. That matches the data showing younger workers more likely to take on extra jobs as they handle both inflation and student debt, said Loujaina Abdelwahed, an economist at Revelio Labs, a company that specializes in workforce research.

“While headline economic indicators look rosy, they fail to reveal the nuanced reality for millennials,” she said.

In contrast, Black voters tended to be more upbeat than whites about the economy, but also more likely to put unemployment above inflation as a concern.

Apollo Brooks, 38, lives in Henry County, but works on sailboats in Miami. Brooks, who is African American, said job prospects have improved since Trump left office.

“When Trump was in office, my company was laying people off. They were tying up boats and laying people off,” said Brooks, who plans to vote for Biden. “With Biden in office, they’re trying to hire more people. That’s what I look at.”

Brooks’ response is consistent with Black workers as something of a bellwether on the job market. Black unemployment has always been higher than the national average, and when the economy turns down, Black joblessness is often the first to soar. But coming out of the pandemic, Black unemployment has been near its all-time low.

Policy division

Politics also figures in poll answers, with Republicans generally less upbeat on the economy and Democrats more positive.

“I would like to get some semblance of stabilizing the influx of money into the economy that has just been printed willy-nilly,” said Patrick Delisle, a 55-year-old physical therapist from Cherokee County, who blames Biden for the rising prices. “It’s made the inflation problem worse.”

Many Biden supporters pointed to the pandemic and Trump’s policies as the root cause of price increases, including 57-year-old Marc White in Fulton.

“We have high inflation. Costs of good are still high, but the cost of goods went up during COVID, and who was president then?” the engineer said.

While the presidential choice is also a test of other values, the two chief candidates also have very different economic resumes. Biden as president has pushed programs that have poured money into semiconductors and electric vehicles, including huge investments in Georgia. He has also overseen both dramatic job growth and painful inflation.

Trump’s first term economic policy centered on tax cuts and tariffs. He has promised more of the same if elected again, in addition to mass deportations of immigrants. The economy, which had been growing when Trump took office, continued to expand until the start of the pandemic, when it crashed for two months as the government shut down the economy to slow the virus’ spread.

The recovery — fueled by massive spending under both the Trump and Biden administrations — was bumpy, with high unemployment and supply chain snarls that created shortages and higher prices. The unemployment rate in Georgia, which was 3.6% pre-pandemic, did not get back to that level until late summer of 2021 during Biden’s first year in office.

That jobless rate is 3.2% now.

Easy to ‘blame the government’

Overall, inflation since May 2019 has been about 22.6%, most of that since Biden took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At one point in 2022, Atlanta prices were growing at a 10% annual clip.

Economists generally blame a combination of factors — the pandemic spending, supply chain woes, a tight labor market — though they disagree on how much blame to give each.

It’s too easy to blame the government, said L.D. Burroughs of Cobb County, who works in communications for a university.

“I think a lot of the public thinks it’s the federal government, but I think the supply chain is still weak,” said Burroughs, who declined to say which way she would vote. “And I think Congress should have a look at some of the profits.”

Whatever the causes, inflation has cooled dramatically.

Gas prices in metro Atlanta were about $3.35 per gallon on average for regular unleaded on Thursday, June 27, 2024, according to This BP station is on Chamblee Dunwoody Road in Dunwoody, Ga. (J. Scott Trubey/

Credit: J. Scott Trubey

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Credit: J. Scott Trubey

In the past year, inflation overall has been 3.27%, lower than the increase in wages, according to the BLS. The price of some items — including many kinds of food — have not increased or have even fallen in that time. New leases for rents have been either flat or fallen. The price of gas peaked in 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine at $4.54 a gallon for regular, but averaged about $3.35 in metro Atlanta on Thursday, up 11 cents in the past year, according to

Yet the burst of inflation — the worst since the early 1980s — left a mark. And many voters have already picked a candidate to condemn.

“With inflation, all the prices just jumped up,” said Trump supporter Ron Prince, 80, of Newton County. “I blame Biden for that. I don’t know exactly why.”

By most of the indicators historically used, the economy is doing very well. Yet even many of the more affluent Georgians are downbeat.

About 49% of those making more than $150,000 said they were doing worse than a year ago, and 37% of them expect the economy to get worse in the coming year. Among those with incomes of $100,000 to $150,000, the same proportion said things have gotten worse and nearly 40% said they’re pessimistic about the coming year.

Explanations vary. Perhaps the influence of cable television, or residual pandemic trauma or the unexpected shock of inflation. Whatever the cause, even on those that remained employed and well-paid, the sting lingers, said economist Tom Smith of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

Periods of economic calm don’t make the impression on people that pain does, he said.

“You only remember when it rains on your birthday,” Smith said. “You don’t remember all the times it didn’t.”