AP-NORC poll: Inflation up, virus down as priorities in US

  • Trucks line up to enter a Port of Oakland shipping terminal on Nov. 10 in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

WASHINGTON — Heading into a critical midterm election year, the top political concerns of Americans are shifting in ways that suggest Democrats face considerable challenges to maintaining their control of Congress.

A poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that management of the pandemic, once an issue that strongly favored President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats, is beginning to recede in the minds of Americans. COVID-19 is increasingly overshadowed by concerns about the economy and personal finances which are topics that could lift Republicans.

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Just 37% of Americans name the virus as one of their top five priorities for the government to work on in 2022, compared with 53% who said it was a leading priority at the same time a year ago. The economy outpaced the pandemic in the open-ended question, with 68% of respondents mentioning it in some way as a top 2022 concern. A similar percentage said the same last year, but mentions of inflation are much higher now: 14% this year, compared with less than 1% last year. Consumer prices jumped 6.8% for the 12 months ending in November, a nearly four-decade high. Meanwhile, roughly twice as many Americans now mention their household finances, namely, the cost of living, as a governmental priority, 24% vs. 12% last year.

The poll was conducted in early December, when worries about the virus were rising as omicron took hold in the country, but before it sparked record caseloads, overwhelmed testing sites and hospitals and upended holiday travel. Still, in recent follow-up interviews with participants, including self-identified Democrats, many said those developments didn’t shake their views.

“If we say anything along the lines of, ‘Let’s wait until the pandemic dies down,’ well, this son of a gun virus has unlimited ability to mutate,” said Mary Small, a 65-year-old pharmaceutical research contractor in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, who hopes efforts to promote gun safety will take center stage in November’s elections, including her state’s race for an open Senate seat. “We might never be done with this.”

That sentiment reflects the challenge for Democrats at the onset of the election year. The party won the White House and control of Congress in 2020 with pledges to manage the pandemic more competently than the Trump administration. After initially earning high marks — roughly 70% approved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic from late February through mid-July — the virus’ persistence has undermined the new president’s message.

Administration officials acknowledge that the public is growing increasingly weary of COVID-19.

“Pandemic fatigue is real, and all of us feel it at some point,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in an interview. “As a doctor, I’ve certainly seen it with my patients over the years. When you get tired and beaten down by a health problem — whether it’s a personal health problem or a broader public health challenge — it can lead to disengagement.”

The White House says COVID-19’s waning as a preeminent concern actually underscores its success rolling out preventative measures, including vaccines. It argues that economic jitters now exacerbated by the pandemic eventually will ease.

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