Economy, inflation among Georgia voters’ top concerns, AJC poll finds

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

87% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats said the cost of living and current economy were among their two top issues this November

Six weeks before election day and three weeks before the start of in-person early voting, the economy looms large in Georgia voters’ minds.

Concerns about the cost of living ranked first in the minds of voters, while jobs and the economy placed third, according to a poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When likely general election voters were asked for their top two issues, cost of living and jobs and the economy combined to rank highest for 69% of participants.

While other topics such as abortion and immigration motivate many voters, the economy affects everyone. And what a strange economy it is.

Unemployment in Georgia and nationally is near record lows. But most voters said they’ve felt the squeeze of inflation and are worried about economic headwinds facing the country amid interest rate hikes and fears of an upcoming recession.

“Everything is more expensive than when I first retired five years ago,” said Sandra Pannell, a 72-year-old former educator in Cherokee County.

Pannell, who said she supports Republicans, was among the 861 likely general election voters who participated in the poll, which was conducted Sept. 5 through 16 by the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs.

Gas prices, the most noticeable sign of inflation, soared through the spring before starting a steady decline in early summer. But food prices are still rising as are home values and rents. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve’s battle to fight that inflation by raising interest rates has sparked fears of a recession, which could trigger higher unemployment.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

While conservative voters more consistently listed inflation and the economy as their top motivations this election cycle, often blaming President Joe Biden and his administration’s economic policies, liberals disagree that Republicans would do a better job handling those issues.

Justin Davis Hughes, a 50-year-old freelancer in DeKalb County, said rising prices “are concerns for everybody.”

“But the Republicans don’t make anything better as much as they like to talk about it,” said Hughes, who said he’s backing Democrats.

Worry about the economy is historically critical to elections, said Josh Pasek, professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies.

“It’s always the case that one of the primary considerations is, ‘How are we doing? Are we doing well or not so well?’” Pasek said. “And really it can be a question of ‘How am I doing? Am I doing well?’”

‘Don’t want that eaten away’

For some voters, that uncertainty — and the reality of higher prices now — make the economy the dominant factor.

“For someone who is retired and lives off the money that they put away for their retirement, they don’t want that eaten away by having to pay more just to be able to live,” Pannell said.

The AJC poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, showed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp with an eight-point lead over Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, while Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock were essentially tied.

Republican voters were much more likely to focus on the rising cost of living and the economy’s health. Nearly 87% of Republicans said those issues were among the two most important things facing the country this election. For Democrats, only 44% agreed.

“As far as where the economy of the country is going, we don’t know yet,” said Heather Prayor-Patterson, a 43-year-old psychologist in DeKalb County, who supports Abrams and Warnock.

“I’m not ready to just jump on that thinking we’re about to have another recession like we went through after the housing crash,” she said.

While there is no national race on the ballot, there has been high-profile debate about the performance of Biden and his administration, even as the legal troubles of Donald Trump, the former president, are often in the news. Pasek and other political science experts said many voters associate economic woes with the party in power, which can affect local candidates.

In the case of Georgia, Kemp has walked a fine line, arguing his conservative policies have made Georgia’s economy strong while blasting Democrats. Republican Walker, facing an incumbent Democrat in Warnock, has painted a bleak picture of the economy, a jarring juxtaposition by candidates of the same party.

“Anger is motivating. People who are unhappy have more of a motivation to turn out and vote,” Pasek said. “In this case there is not a national incumbent, figuring out who is going to vote is the bulk of what we are looking at.”

ExploreTwo Georgia Republican candidates, two different views on economy

Regardless of political leanings, higher gas and grocery prices have been nearly impossible for most Georgians to ignore.

“Inflation is significantly impacting the middle class,” said Mikhail Melnik, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University. “Now you see those people paying attention to their spending.

Brian Duke, a 42-year-old electric utility worker in Columbia County near Augusta, said he and his family opted not to take a vacation this year due to the ballooning cost of travel expenses. He blamed Democrats and the “reckless spending in Washington,” a phrase Kemp and Walker have used routinely on the campaign trail.

Leon Havenga, a 38-year-old insurance company manager in Gwinnett County, said it’s getting tough for low-wage workers to pay their essential bills due to rising prices, but he said Republicans aren’t concerned with helping low-income Americans.

“It seems like Republicans are more interested in preserving the wealthy and not really concerned with the broader population or the middle class,” said Havenga, who supports Abrams and Warnock.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Prayer-Patterson, the psychiatrist, said low wages are the root issue to the current economic squeeze. She said Kemp suspending the state sales tax on motor fuel, which lowered the price of gasoline by 29.1 cents per gallon, is short-sighted, and she believes Abrams would try to raise workers’ pay.

“Raising the minimum wage is going to help more long-term than just having a small little break for a short time on the gas that I put in my car,” Prayer-Patterson said.

Balancing economy with other issues

But many Georgians across the political spectrum said the economy isn’t the only thing driving their vote this November. And concern about the economy is not the same for all people.

A working person worried about getting laid off has a different perspective than a retired person worried about the price of groceries. Both are affected by higher prices, but attempts to rein in inflation will have a differing impact. Efforts to do something about lowering the cost of living are likely to mean more unemployment. Efforts to stimulate the job market likely fuel inflation.

The Fed’s rate hikes have not yet dampened hiring, but they have rattled both Wall Street and the housing market. So what’s next depends on how much higher the Fed pushes rates, said economist Aleksandar Tomic, associate dean at Boston College’s Woods College of Advancing studies.

“You have to slow down the economy,” he said. “There is no other way to fight inflation.”

ExploreGeorgia ports a growing impact on the economy

For voters with job security or on fixed incomes, that next economic step will be helpful. For most voters with jobs, lower inflation will also be a relief — but not all, Tomic said. “Unemployment right now is only about 3%. So if it goes to say, 5%, is that a catastrophe? No, unless you are one of the people losing a job.”

Dale Blocker of Catoosa County in northwest Georgia, 63, sold his interest in a business recently and is now pondering his next step. For him, politics and the economy are linked. He is appalled at recent federal government policies on the economy.

Social issues reinforce his economic leanings and his intent to vote Republican. Beyond the economy, he said he is concerned about immigration and uncomfortable about transgender issues.

“I am not singing the praises of Republicans from top to bottom; they have problems,” Blocker said. “We have got to have a change in the direction of this country.”

John McLaughlin, 80, of Cherokee County, also cited the economy as a major concern, especially for those like himself who are living on fixed incomes. But he then pivoted quickly to other concerns he also has.

“The economy is right up there with the saving of our democracy,” said McLaughlin, a Vietnam veteran and retired Delta Air Lines captain who now runs the North Metro Miracle League for special needs children and adults.

Threats to democracy ranked second among all issues in the AJC poll.

“I am very concerned about where it is going. The integrity of our democracy and of our elected officials,” he said.

McLaughlin said he’s not necessarily a supporter of either party. And like many voters in this statewide election, he is well aware of national issues.

“I voted for Trump in 2016 with high hopes and I was disappointed,” he said. “I voted for Biden because he seemed like a decent human being. In office he seems kind of overwhelmed, but I still think he’s a decent man.”

ExploreAJC poll: Abortion isn’t top issue for many Georgia voters