How inflation is influencing politics in a bellwether Florida county

Jill Mallen gets her groceries at a food pantry because of soaring inflation. She says she's a "confused" voter - a registered Democrat who feels Republicans did a better job of managing the economy. (Asma Khalid/NPR)

Asma Khalid / Asma Khalid

Americans consistently say the economy is their biggest concern — specifically, the soaring cost of living.

For months, polls have indicated that a majority of Americans do not approve of how President Biden has handled the economy.

“The cost of living — it’s just crazy,” said Debbie Pisco, a 67-year-old retiree who is on a fixed income, as she loaded groceries into her car outside Walmart in Pinellas Park, Fla.

The broader Tampa metro area has seen some of the highest inflation rates in the country: 11.2% in the latest government data in August.

Pisco’s solution: elect more Republicans in midterm elections this November. She said Democrats “are not doing anything — they’re just making things worse.”

Voters view the economy through a partisan lens

While Pisco’s blunt, bleak economic outlook is fairly common among people in Pinellas County, her political prescription is not universal.

The health of the economy, like most issues in modern politics, is increasingly viewed through a partisan lens.

This is a rare “boomerang” county, meaning it voted for President Barack Obama, then President Donald Trump and subsequently Biden. In years past, it would have been a competitive district for the midterms, but recent redistricting has made most districts in Florida uncompetitive. But it’s still an ideal political microcosm to get a pulse on how people feel about the president.

In more than two dozen interviews across Pinellas County, Republicans and Democrats alike expressed frustration with the economy. Republicans blamed the president. Democrats blamed global forces, the pandemic, and interrupted supply chains. They also pointed out that other countries around the world have far higher inflation rates.

But it’s unclear how negative views of the economy will filter down to voters’ political choices.

A registered Democrat says inflation has confused her political choices

In the last midterm elections in 2018, Republicans had hoped that a relatively strong economy under then-President Trump would save them from losses. But that strategy did not pan out. A post-mortem by the New York Times found that there wasn’t a clear correlation between the economy and 2018 election results.

But four years ago, people felt relatively happy with the economy. Now, they don’t. And the question is whether pessimism over the state of the economy affects how people feel about President Biden — and ultimately, how and whether they vote in November.

As Jill Mallen packed groceries into a bag at a food pantry in St. Petersburg, she complained about how grocery prices have shot up. The 62-year-old bone cancer survivor is on disability and said the pantry has become her main source of food.

“I can’t afford to go to Aldi and places like I used to go,” she said. “I don’t have money left over with the increase and everything … to go to the grocery store.”

Mallen owns her home but said she currently can’t afford insurance on it because homeowners insurance rates have increased.

She said the economy was better under Trump. So now, she feels politically confused. “I’m a registered Democrat,” she said. “I have issues with our former president … I don’t like the untruths that took over with that party — even though I like the economy better.”

The White House has a messaging problem on inflation

But for some voters, economic frustration isn’t limited to inflation. It’s about messaging and credibility.

The White House often touts the low unemployment rate and record job creation as evidence of a strong economy. But Maranda Douglas, a Democrat, said her first-hand experience in the current economy isn’t matching the job market Biden and his team describe.

“I thought I went the high road. I got my bachelor’s degree,” said Douglas. “I’m applying for jobs that I feel like I’m qualified for, that I should be paid well for. But I’m not getting that feedback.”

This week, the 32-year-old is moving back into her mom’s house — with her daughter and boyfriend — to save money.

“It’s a little disheartening because we were really trying to establish our independence,” she said. Her mom Deirdre Douglas said that most of the homes in their neighborhood now house multigenerational families because home prices are beyond reach for young adults.

Sharp rent increases have squeezed voters in Pinellas County

The struggle to find affordable housing is common in Pinellas County, which has seen an influx of new residents in recent years.

“Rent prices are really — they’re too high,” said Christina Willette, a certified nursing assistant who makes $15 an hour. She said the rent on her two-bedroom apartment has gone up more than $600 a month over the last couple of years.

“It’s like you can’t do anything fun with the kids or with family, ’cause the only money you have is really for bills,” she said.

The mom of four said she began feeling financially squeezed when Biden came into office. “That’s who I picked,” she said. “But it seems like that’s when it started.”

She doesn’t blame Biden; she said she would never have voted for Trump because she thought he was sexist and divisive. But if Biden runs for president again, she said she probably won’t vote for him.

If anything, she said she’s been more impressed by how her Republican governor Ron DeSantis — who many believe has presidential ambitions — has handled the economy. She said she liked how he tried to keep schools and businesses open throughout the pandemic, so people like her could continue to work.

Jared Muha, 28, had hoped to buy a house when he became a high school history teacher. But instead of a house, he had to find a roommate, because his rent went up $400 this year.

“I have a master’s degree, six years of experience and two jobs, and I don’t feel like I can just, like, live comfortably in the world,” Muha said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be rich when I got a degree in history, you know what I mean? But I would like to just be able to live comfortably.”

Muha voted for Biden “very reluctantly.” He said he wishes the president would follow through on his campaign promise to forgive a portion of student debt. He feels like Democrats take their base for granted — but he said he probably will still vote for the party in the November midterms.

Most people won’t vote in midterms. That’s why the base is key

A majority of eligible voters won’t vote in midterms. And research shows nonvoters tend to be people who don’t have as much money.

“The food prices are ridiculous,” said Kevin Connors, a 41-year-old security guard grabbing a free dinner on a recent evening through the nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay. “Our government blaming Ukraine and everybody for our gas prices is ridiculous. The housing is ridiculous.”

Connors, who makes about $16 an hour, said he hasn’t voted in years. He said he’s disillusioned with all his choices.

Political experts say midterms are won not by persuading people like Connors, but by energizing the already-existing base.

For the midterms, congressional Democrats plan to run on the Inflation Reduction Act that they recently passed, some $700 billion in spending that Biden described as “delivering progress and prosperity to American families.”

The White House plans to hit the road this month to promote the package, which locks in lower premiums for people who have Affordable Care Act coverage, provides rebates for climate-change-curbing appliances and vehicles, and allows Medicare to negotiate prices on some prescription drugs — although some of these benefits won’t take effect until after the November elections.

“Every single Republican in the Congress sided with the special interests in this vote,” Biden said, noting that pharmaceutical companies and corporations had fought the bill. “That’s the choice we face: we can protect the already-powerful, or show the courage to build the future where everybody has an even shot.”

Anger is often effective to motivate voters, in both parties

Back in Florida, Pam McAloon, president of the Pinellas Federated Republican Women’s club, said the economy is extremely important to GOP voters, but it isn’t the sole motivating factor. She thinks the FBI search of Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago could rally people.

“When you see a former president being treated the way he was treated just recently, that’s really gonna energize people [to] go out and vote,” she said.

Anger is often effective at motivating voters. And Democrats insist their base is angry too — about rights being stripped away from them.

Jennifer Griffin, an OB-GYN who performs abortions in the area, said her patients are furious about the series of rules imposed on them by the Florida state legislature — the 24-hour waiting period for an abortion, and the 15-week ban, for example.

“They’re angry. And they say, ‘What can I do about it?'” Griffin explained. “I said the one thing you can do is vote. The second thing you can do is get everyone you know to vote.”

While polling suggests voters have concerns about the economy, the political story in real life is complicated. The economy is the single issue voters repeatedly point to in surveys as their biggest concern. But in interviews in this county, it seems like it’s not the primary factor driving many people’s political decisions.

“No one’s gonna change their point of view because of the economy,” said Gretchen Johnson, president of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, explaining the economy is already baked in to voters’ calculations.

“Either you’re gonna blame Joe Biden or you’re not gonna blame Joe Biden for inflation, and gas and all that stuff,” she said.

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