Several polls show that the No. 1 issue heading into the election season is not the war in Iraq or the terrorist threat, but the performance of the U.S. economy, which has gotten poor marks from voters despite steady growth and lower unemployment.
But pollsters conducting election surveys for Republicans say persistently sour voter attitudes about the economy have begun to improve recently, partly because of last week’s sharp decline in oil and gasoline prices.
“We’re seeing that as gas prices have come down, attitudes about the direction of the economy have improved,” pollster David Winston said.
Voter concern over the top two or three issues has risen or fallen in tandem with progress in the war in Iraq, the cost of oil and gas and news about the foiled terrorist plot in London. For much of the year, the top three issues — Iraq, terrorism and the economy — jockeyed for first place.
But as the political battles over Iraq and the war on terrorism were ratcheted up by President Bush and the Democrats in recent weeks, polls showed that Americans were more concerned about the economy and pocketbook issues closer to home.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll of 1,004 Americans taken Sept. 4 and 5 showed that 28 percent said the economy would be the most important factor in their congressional vote this November, followed by Iraq at 25 percent and terrorism at 18 percent. Moral issues (15 percent) and immigration (14 percent) were fourth and fifth, respectively.
That poll showed voters giving the economy failing grades, with 56 percent rating it “poor” overall, compared with 44 percent who called it “good.”
A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 registered voters taken Aug. 29 to 30 reported similar results. When asked which issue would be most important for their vote, 23 percent said the economy, compared with 14 percent who said Iraq and 12 percent who said terrorism.
When gas prices began to climb in the summer driving season, voter complaints about the economy climbed, too.
“Those are the two top issues now, Iraq and the economy,” Mr. Winston said. “Those are the two areas that are leading people’s concerns.”
But with oil prices down from more than $70 a barrel a few weeks ago to $66 at the end of last week, and gas prices falling to an average of $2.68 a gallon for regular — and to as low as $2.40 in places such as Ohio — there was growing speculation among Republican strategists that if prices continue to fall, the political climate would improve for the party’s candidates.
“Gas prices is one of those issues that is very important as long as they are high,” Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell said. “But when they drop, the issue falls off the radar screen.”
Mr. Winston said he is seeing movement in the polls as a result of lower gas prices.
“The more positive views people have of the economy, the more favorable the environment is for Republicans,” he said.