Opinion

Opinion: Cost of Living Is the Sleeper Issue of 2018

Voters less interested in Russia investigation and scandal

Customers shop at an Aldi grocery store on June 12, 2017, in Chicago. David Winston writes that the cost of living is a sleeper issue that’s likely to impact the outcome of the midterm elections. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)

If there’s one question that I get asked by reporters these days, it’s “what’s the sleeper race to watch for this fall?”

The question I think they should be asking is “what’s the sleeper issue likely to impact the outcome of the elections this fall?” The answer is the cost of living, or COL, one of the most politically potent and underreported issues out there today.

But I suppose it’s understandable. The cost-of-living issue doesn’t offer up porn stars or salacious emails or sanctimonious talking heads that dominate so much of what is supposed to be serious political news these days. It’s about something that actually matters to people — their economic future and for many, just paying the bills day to day.

According to the April Winning the Issues survey, with 53 percent of the country living paycheck to paycheck and 35 percent saying they are $400 away from financial crisis today, concerns over the cost of living haven’t disappeared — even with an improving economy.

It’s important to understand that COL, in reality, isn’t a single issue. It’s a broad-based set of issues that covers everything incoming and outgoing in a family budget, from housing and utilities to food, gas, clothing, education and taxes. And it’s the lens through which most people view the macro state of the economy — in personal terms.

Paying the bills

Your ordinary American cares a lot more about health care premiums than whether the president of the United States had a one-night stand with Stormy Daniels ten years ago. People don’t get up in the morning worrying about whether the Russians played Facebook in the last presidential election or if a 20-minute meeting in Trump Tower tilted the outcome.

They worry about the price of gas, health care deductibles, paying their heating bills, or the price of hamburger, not the righteousness of Daniels’ lawsuit or the moral rectitude of Donald Trump.

In the most recent Winning the Issues survey, we gave 1,000 registered voters a list of 20 issues and news stories and asked them to tell us, on a 1 to 9 scale, how important each was in deciding their vote for Congress this fall.

“Allegations of scandals involving President Trump/Stormy Daniels” came in dead last among registered voters, at 4.35 overall, with Trump’s alleged ties to Russia second from the bottom at 5.01. Independents put the Daniels issue at 3.98. Though a smaller sample, married women with children ranked the impact of the Daniels scandal even lower at 3.82, the survey found.

The disconnect between people’s concerns and the news media’s scandal-driven focus has never been more pronounced.

The economy/jobs issue, almost universally ignored by most of the media, easily topped the list for registered voters at 7.12. The “need to get things done in DC” came in second at 6.87. But what caught my eye was the issue that came in right behind. People put cost of living at 6.85, ahead of issues from gun control to immigration, North Korea, climate change and Obamacare, to name a few.

How each party decides to address COL issues or not will have a significant impact on this fall’s results. In a January survey done for The Ripon Society, we tried to get a better understanding of COL issues by asking voters to tell us which gave them the most difficulty.

The cost of health care, including insurance premiums and deductibles, was cited as either the first or second choice of 50 percent of the respondents. Taxes was second, at 29 percent, followed by food (26 percent), utility costs (21 percent), gas/transportation prices (16 percent) and mortgage (14 percent).

Not surprisingly, many Democrats, though not all, have zeroed in on health care costs and the GOP tax cuts as the economic arrows in their political quiver to deliver victory in November, rather than putting the focus on Trump, impeachment or base issues like climate.

Not a bad approach when a party has few ideas to offer voters, but it does come with a strategic problem. While people seem to blame both parties for rising health care costs, there is mounting evidence that the tax reform bill is beginning to positively impact a range of COL issues, giving Republicans solid economic proof points to make their case this fall.

Last month’s 3.9 percent unemployment rate hasn’t been seen since 2000. Small business confidence is at historically high levels, while hundreds of companies have increased wages, added better pension benefits and handed out bonuses to workers across the country.

Tax cut benefits

Contrary to the CBO’s original predictions, April delivered the largest monthly tax surplus in history, $218 billion of which experts say is the likely result of individuals paying more in taxes because of higher incomes. That’s an 8 percent increase in income and payroll tax receipts over last year; 13 percent in overall tax receipts.

Utilities in 48 states have decreased or have announced they will decrease rates this year because of the tax bill. That’s 87 million people who will see lower utility bills.

One of the key elements of the tax package that got little coverage is the legislation’s opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a major achievement. While transportation costs have been rising recently as the price of oil has increased, with action on ANWR, the tax bill offers an important solution to help meet the country’s long-term energy needs and keep gas prices lower for consumers in the future.

While the economy isn’t hitting on all cylinders yet, Republicans are better positioned to make a stronger economic argument than Democrats. That matters, because COL issues affect everybody in every congressional district.

What the country wants is for the media and politicians to understand what it’s like to live day to day in their shoes and talk to them about what matters. Less Stormy. More substance.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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