Analysis by Harry Enten, CNN Updated 2:17 PM ET, Thu May 5, 2022
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on economic growth, jobs and deficit reduction during an event at the White House on May 4, 2022. (CNN)Sometimes understanding political opinion is complicated. For example, electoral observers will be trying to comprehend the rise of Donald Trump in American politics for years to come.
The story of public opinion ahead of the 2022 midterms, on other hand, is, at this point, an easy one to understand: "It's the economy, stupid," and unless the economy improves, President Joe Biden and the Democrats are in major trouble. Take a look at our latest CNN poll conducted by SSRS. The No. 1 issue is the economy, and nothing else is even close. Half of all respondents (50%) said it was the most important issue. The next closest was the war between Russia and Ukraine at 14%. CNN Poll: Most Americans have a dismal view of the US economy An examination of the inner workings of the poll reveals just how universal feelings about the economy are. It's the top issue for every single one of the over 20 demographic and political groups we report out in our crosstabs. It's as important to White Americans (50%) as it is to people of color (49%). It matters as much to people age 45 and under (51%) as to those 45 and older (48%). The list goes on. I look at polls for a living, and you rarely see that type of universal agreement across groups. What makes this especially amazing is how rapidly this concern over the economy developed and how rapidly it's become more important to more Americans. A year ago, 54% of Americans said the economy was good. Just 45% said it was bad. Today, 23% say it is good, and a super majority of 77% believe it is bad. You'd have to go back a little over 10 years to find as many Americans saying the economy was in as bad shape. Another way to see this change in action is to look at our CNN poll from November, which had the economy as the top issue, but only 36% of Americans put it at the top of their list. Whenever you see an issue jump in importance by 14 points in a relatively short period of time, you know it's at the forefront of the American psyche. But something else has also happened that speaks to the toxicity of the issue politically: the blame game. Coronavirus is no longer a top issue for Americans. That's good news for Republicans The last time the economy was viewed in as bad of a shape as now was January 2012. Then-President Barack Obama had an approval rating of 47%. He was polling at 49% against Mitt Romney, his eventual GOP opponent in that year's election. Biden's approval rating is at 41%, with a disapproval rating of 59%, according to our CNN poll. Obama was polling better back then compared with Biden now not because voters cared less about the economy. In fact, Gallup polling at the time showed Americans cared significantly more about the economy than they do now. But what's different today is that a clear majority (55%) of Americans, according to our latest poll, believe Biden's economic policies have worsened the shape of the economy. A decade ago, a significantly lower 37% had the same belief of Obama's policies and the economy. Unfortunately for Biden and the Democrats, the problem is getting worse. In December, 45% believed Biden's policies had worsened things. You could imagine a universe in which that percentage was survivable politically. But when 50% think the economy is the top issue and 55% think your policies have made things worse, that's very difficult to overcome. This shouldn't be a surprise. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last weekend found that 50% of US adults said Republicans were better able to handle the economy. Thirty-six percent said the same about Democrats. Today is a disastrous day for Democrats' 2022 chances You'll notice that the 14-point edge for Republicans over Democrats on handling the economy is very similar to the 10-point gap between those who say Biden's policies have hurt the economy (55%) and those who say they have either improved it (19%) or had no effect (26%). It makes sense then that Republicans are sporting a rare lead on the generic congressional ballot. There will no doubt be other political battles over the next six months until the midterm elections. The battle over abortion rights could end up being front and center, for example. Republicans would be wise to keep their electoral eye on the economy, which they seem to try to be doing. And with the worst inflation in 40 years, it will be difficult to displace the economy as the top issue. Given how poorly Biden and the Democrats are polling on the issue, that's very good news for Republicans and very bad news for the Democrats.