Sometimes you hit the campaign trail and there is an issue voters care so much about, that its dominance is inescapable. In 2006, it was growing opposition to the Iraq war. In 2010, it was the backlash against big government spending and bailouts coupled with fear about what Obamacare would look like. This year, it is deep concern about affordability.
That is not to say that other issues, from abortion to crime to the climate and beyond, don’t matter a lot to voters – but anxiety about the high cost of the basics is palpable.
We learned that after traveling to five pivotal states since Labor Day weekend: Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Nevada and Arizona. We covered competitive races and talked to scores of voters in diners, gas stations, grocery store parking lots, construction sites, outdoor markets and more.
Latest election news
“I drive a truck and it does not get very good gas mileage. I actually had to quit my last job because I couldn’t afford to drive all the way out there,” Amanda Cleaver told us at the Michigan State Fair on Labor Day weekend.
Greg Steyer, as he sat with a group of friends at Bud’s Restaurant in Defiance, Ohio, expressed his exasperation as well.
“Why is the price of gas where it is today?” Steyer asked the second week of September.
“You can’t just overlook that issue,” he added.
As Joseph San Clemente put his groceries in his car in a Virginia Beach parking lot in late September, he couldn’t get over the prices of what he had just purchased.
“Vegetables have gone up 20 to 30%,” he said. “Growers locally in the farms are not carrying things they did last year because people don’t have the money.”
Dave Dent, who manages a construction company in Tucson, Arizona, said in late October that inflation in his line of work is as high as 30%.
And Maria Melgoza, who cleans homes in Las Vegas, told us how hard it is to make ends meet these days.
“Food is high, gas is high, rent is high,” she said, speaking in Spanish.
We heard from many frustrated voters – especially those among the working class and in rural areas - who feel forgotten by politicians in Washington.
“I came up in a union household. My dad was a teamster for 30 years, voted Democrat. But they’re completely out of touch with what everyday Americans want,” lamented Jason Fetke in Virginia Beach.
A current union member we met in Toledo, Ohio, says he is voting for Democrats this year, but still feels like neither party is doing enough.
“I think there should be a lot more focus on working class people,” said Joe Stallbaum.
“It just seems like we always get left behind for either the high or the low,” he added.
Abortion is still an issue
Then there’s the issue of abortion. It may not be the main motivation for all voters we met, but it is certainly a motivating factor.
At an outdoor plaza with food trucks and a band during lunchtime in Toledo, Ohio, several people answered “abortion” when asked what is most important to them this election year.
“Making sure women still have a choice,” Ashley Lindsley told us. “I just think that with everything that just happened recently at the Supreme Court, it’s really important that we get people in office that are protective of women’s rights.”
In Arizona, a state with multiple critical races – governor, Senate and, where we were, a tight congressional race, some women argued that they think the abortion issue is more potent than shows up in public opinion polls.
“I think a lot of women aren’t ready to go way out in public and wave signs and do the whole bit, but they’re going to come to the voting booth and they’re going to vote their conscience, and that’s what counts,” one voter said.
When we met Dick Rossell near Detroit in early September, he told us that he hadn’t made up his mind about who to vote for in the state’s pivotal governor’s race.
He said he leans Republican but does not like that the GOP nominee, Tudor Dixon, is staunchly anti-abortion.
“I think there are times when women’s lives are in danger and when there’s extenuating circumstances that it has to happen,” Rossell told us then.
When we checked back with him earlier this week he had already voted for Dixon, the Republican. He told us the reason he felt comfortable doing that is because of a ballot initiative in Michigan allowing abortion – he voted for that as well. He explained that he was still “having a problem” with Dixon’s stance against abortion, but being able to support a referendum that could take that issue out of her hands “made the difference,” Rossell told us.
That is not the dynamic Democrats were hoping for when they pushed to have abortion rights on the ballot there. Their strategy was to increase turnout for Democratic candidates like incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
But Rossell took it as a green light to vote for Tudor.
“I liked everything about her as far as the economy and the things that she was going to try and fix, and the things that we’re having a problem with right now in Michigan,” Rossell said about Dixon.
“I’m on a fixed income. I’m a totally disabled veteran from the Vietnam War, so I get a veteran’s pension and Social Security,” Rossell said, for which he said he is grateful.
“But when you’re living on a fixed income of any kind, you hurt when gas doubles in price, when groceries go up 20%. I don’t care what you’re doing now,” he added.
Not everyone blames Democrats
To be sure, we also met voters who don’t blame Democrats for tough times.
“I think he’s doing the best he can with the tools he has,” Crystal Rodriguez told us in Virginia Beach as she took boxes of clothes her kids had outgrown out of her car to donate to charity.
At a gas station nearby, Ryan Farmer had a similar opinion.
“I don’t care who’s president. Gas prices are going to be expensive, it is what it is right now,” said Farmer as he filled up his tank. “I think that’s just the way it is,” he added.
Out west in Nevada a month later, Agnes Wilson told us the same thing. She is worried about making ends meet. But she also voted for the Democrat, incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is locked in a tight race against Republican Adam Laxalt.
“I think that they’re going to do a good job,” Wilson said.
She was one of two school crossing guards we met in east Las Vegas in as they helped students navigate a busy intersection.
The other, James Kieffer, is so disgusted with both parties that he says he doesn’t plan to vote.
“They’re not talking about what they’re going to do. All they’re talking about is slandering each other about how much money they’re making,” he said.
It’s a missed opportunity for both parties in a state like Nevada – where every vote will likely matter in a neck-and-neck Senate race that could determine who controls Washington.
But most of the people we met in the battleground states we visited did intend to vote. They were engaged on the issues and knowledgeable about the candidates – passionate about voting and what is at stake. That is always a good thing.