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It's not the "headlines", it's reality setting in?

This has to be tough for the NY Times to report. Ouch!

As headlines shift in the weeks before the midterms, so do voters’ top concerns.

By Nate Cohn, NY Times

Voting in Atlanta last week.Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

Mood swing

Two weeks before November’s midterm elections, many voter surveys suggest Republicans are gaining momentum toward retaking one or both chambers of Congress.

Every major Senate race, except for Georgia’s, has been trending toward Republicans. There are even warning signs for Democrats in House districts in Oregon and Rhode Island where Republicans are rarely competitive. And now, more voters say they intend to vote for Republicans instead of Democrats for Congress in their districts.

In such a polarized country, understanding how one party can gain an advantage so quickly can sometimes be hard. In this case, the explanation is straightforward: It’s about the issues on the minds of voters.

Over the summer, the dominant headlines and resulting public debate were focused on issues that helped Democrats, like abortion, gun violence and threats to democracy. These issues helped Democrats stay highly competitive, despite President Biden’s low approval ratings and a tendency for the sitting president’s party to get drubbed in midterm elections.

But the spotlight on those matters is fading. Voters are less frequently citing them as top concerns while expressing worries about the economy, crime and immigration — issues that tend to favor Republicans.

In a New York Times/Siena College poll released last week, the share of voters citing the economy, inflation, crime or immigration as the “most important problem” facing the country increased to 52 percent, up 14 points from a July version of the poll. The share citing the Democratic-friendly issues of abortion, democracy or guns dropped to 14 percent from 26 percent.

Attitudes in flux

Looking back, it’s easy to see why the mood of the nation’s electorate has shifted.

Our July poll was taken just a couple weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Abortion was in the headlines nearly every day, as the nation grappled with the fallout and state bans went into effect. But relevant news developments have slowed, and that affects the public’s attention. Google searches for “abortion” are now at about the level they were in early spring, before the ruling hit the headlines.

In last week’s Times/Siena poll, just 5 percent of voters said that abortion was the most important problem facing the country.

Other issues playing to Democrats’ strengths had similar trajectories. The House committee investigating the Capitol attack held eight public hearings in June and July, but only one after Labor Day (and it was on Oct. 13, after we conducted our most recent poll). Firearms restrictions are another core issue for Democrats that they often highlight in response to gun violence. The Times cataloged at least nine mass shootings in the two months before our July poll, including the horrific massacres at a grocery store in Buffalo and at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The spate of such mass shootings has, fortunately, faded as well.

Now on voters’ minds

Economic concerns are resurgent. The summer’s falling gas prices and somewhat optimistic inflation news have given way to renewed concerns about the rising cost of living and drops in the stock market.

Crime and immigration are in a somewhat different category. These are longstanding problems, but they don’t usually dominate the front pages alongside major news stories, save for mass shootings. Republicans have nonetheless elevated them as campaign issues, including with high-profile gambits like the decision by Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis to fly migrants to the liberal bastion of Martha’s Vineyard.

The swing voters

If you’re an ideologically consistent voter who agrees with your party on almost every issue, it can be hard to believe that other voters can be so fickle. But millions of Americans — perhaps even most of them — hold conflicting views. They can be drawn to different candidates or parties, depending on what they consider most important in a particular election.

Take abortion: If you believe the polls that 60 percent of Americans think it should be mostly legal, then a huge share of the voters who back Republicans in any given election must support legal abortion. These voters presumably back Republicans for another reason, whether it’s the economy and taxes or an issue like immigration. But if abortion is at the top of their minds, perhaps a sliver of them will defect.

In polling over the summer, some did. But in the more recent surveys, many of them came back to the Republican fold.

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