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Presidential elections tend to be referenda on the incumbent. However, in a contest that many assumed would feature more personal attacks between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, two issues — abortion and inflation — will play critical roles in who voters choose in November throughout the entire ticket, from the president down to state houses. 

To that end, inflation and abortion represent two of the biggest vulnerabilities for Joe Biden and Democrats, and Trump and Republicans, respectively. And while both are among voters’ top concerns, Biden’s poor ratings on the economy — just 40 percent approve of his handling of the economy per RealClearPolitics —  should have given Trump an edge, given the paramount importance of the economy. 

That said, Republicans have so botched their handling of abortion that it may nullify any electoral edge Republicans would have had due to inflation and general economic pessimism.  

Quite simply, moves by a handful of states — most recently ArizonaFlorida and Alabama — to restrict abortion and in-vitro fertilization access have reignited the debate over reproductive rights and given Democrats an opening to paint Republicans as extremists who are woefully out of step with mainline American attitudes. 

Indeed, 85 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal under all (34 percent) or at least certain (51 percent) circumstances, while just 13 percent feel it should be illegal in all circumstances, per Gallup polling.  

Interestingly, these two issues surged to the forefront of the national political scene in June 2022, when the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade and the Consumer Price Index hit a four-decade high, setting the stage for their role as pivotal electoral issues this November.  

With that in mind, the 2022 midterms were a preview of how Americans treat these issues vis-à-vis who they vote for. That year, historically high inflation, a weak stock market and fears of a recession deemed inevitable led many to conclude that Republicans would dominate the midterms in a “red wave” as it was assumed that concerns over abortion access would take backstage to economic pessimism.  

However, Republicans nominated a slew of candidates with extreme views on abortion, dashing GOP hopes of winning back the Senate. And while they did win the House, they have one of the smallest majorities in modern history.  

Between 2022 and this year’s elections, anti-abortion bills have been defeated in states around the country, including Republican strongholds like Kansas, and many national Republicans, including Trump, are urging the party to stop advancing extreme bills that have proven themselves to be political liabilities.  

Even Donald Trump understands the vulnerability this poses to his election bid. He recently remarked that Arizona’s Supreme Court went too far in upholding a 160-year law essentially banning abortions.  

This is not a one-off for the former president, who also commented that “Florida is probably going to change” course after that state’s highest court upheld a six-week abortion ban.  

Trump’s moderation on abortion comes after repeatedly bragging that he appointed the Supreme Court justices who decided the Dobbs case overturning Roe. He is now one of a handful of Republicans who have urged the party to shift the focus away from the party’s extreme anti-abortion wing towards a moderate “state’s rights” approach, including Arizona Senate hopeful Kari Lake and Reps. John Duarte (R-Calif.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). 

Taken together, it is clear that Republicans are trying to contain the fallout of Dobbs after decades of working to put conservative justices on the bench. They now realize the issue animates a small but vocal part of their base but is a loser in national elections that robs Republicans of the chance to focus on their winning issues: inflation and the economy.  

Or, as one Republican strategist described it, “Abortion will suck all the oxygen out of the air of any other issue. This puts Republicans on their heels.” 

To that end, Republicans will surely look to refocus voters’ attention on the economy and persistently high inflation, issues where the GOP should win. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans say the top policy priority should be “strengthening the economy” according to Pew Research

Moreover, voters increasingly believe that not only would Trump be better for the economy generally than Biden (55 percent to 35 percent), but more than four in 10 (44 percent) voters think Trump’s policies would bring inflation down, compared to just 17 percent who say the same about Biden, according to recent polling.  

This sentiment extends down the ballot. By a 14-point margin (35 percent to 21 percent), Americans generally trust Republicans — rather than Democrats — to handle inflation, and by a similar 10 points (35 percent to 25 percent) Americans trust Republicans to handle the economy, per Ipsos

Whether this will be enough to overcome Republicans’ clear weakness on abortion remains to be seen, but one thing that can make 2024 different from 2022 is two years of inflation ravaging American’s paychecks.  

Despite Biden’s spin on recent inflation reports, claiming that “inflation has fallen over 60 percent from its peak” — itself an inaccurate description of Consumer Price Index reports — Americans can see and feel that prices are up 18 percent cumulatively since Biden entered office — and 20 percent since 2020, while wages have only outpaced inflation since May 2023

Republicans may hope that inflation and the economy, which impact every American, are at the front of voters’ minds at the polls, but 2022 showed that is not a certainty. 

Ultimately, abortion and inflation pose a danger to both Trump and Biden, respectively, but we cannot yet be sure which issue may prove decisive. Whichever party can downplay its vulnerabilities and focus voters’ attention on the other side should have an advantage, but the election will not happen in a vacuum. 

If more states pass ultra-restrictive abortion laws, Democrats should see a tailwind, but if inflation remains sticky, voters may decide to vote with their wallet, at least on a national level.  

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an advisor to President Clinton and the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

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