"Yeah, the economy's a pretty scary thing right now," said Steve Ryan, an investor and professional poker player living in Las Vegas, Nevada. "Sometimes I go to Costco [bulk discount retailer] to get gas because I noticed it's usually about 40 cents cheaper per gallon there."
"It's just kind of a sad thing. … Money is so tight."
At a time of decades-high inflation, a housing crunch and a volatile, mostly sinking stock market, Americans from coast to coast are apprehensive about their finances and the state of the economy. With U.S. midterm elections on November 8, voters may choose to express their economic angst at the ballot box, ultimately deciding whether Republicans wrest control of the U.S. House or Senate from Democrats, as well as which political party controls statehouses across the country.
In Connecticut, independent voter Rebecca Urrutia, who has four children, told VOA she will vote her pocketbook in the state's gubernatorial contest.
"It cost us $40 for two quarts of soup from Panera [chain restaurant] the other day," she said. "Grocery shopping is difficult as some products are up 30% in price. Eating out really isn't even an option for our family anymore."
Urrutia is pointing fingers.
"I blame our governor [a Democrat]," she continued. "He single-handedly caused our economy to plummet because of his response to the pandemic and because of his tax policies that have crippled small businesses and middle-class families. The economy will definitely impact how I vote."
Inflation a top concern
According to a recent Monmouth University poll, 82% of Americans said inflation was an "extremely or very essential issue" for the federal government to solve. The same poll found barely 3 in 10 Americans approved of the job President Joe Biden was doing to tame the rising cost of living.
"The economy is the top concern for most Americans this year," said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, speaking with VOA. "How can it not be? Every time they drive down the street, they see how high the price of gasoline has risen. Every time they walk down the grocery aisle, they see how high the price of milk has risen. We're in an inflationary cycle, and it's troubling people because their income isn't keeping pace."
U.S. consumer prices in August were 8.3% higher than in the same month last year. This was down from a 9.1% increase in June -- a four-decade record -- but still stubbornly high.
For many Americans, gasoline prices are a key gauge of inflationary pressures. Production cuts announced recently by OPEC+, a group of 23 oil-exporting countries, could cause gasoline prices to rise yet again after moderating in recent months.
To tame inflation, America's central bank has sharply boosted interest rates, squeezing many credit card holders and prospective homebuyers.
"The economy scares me, to be honest," said Keith Mott, a police officer in Los Angeles, California. "Retirement plans have taken a big hit, and the rising cost of everything is changing the way we spend our free time."
Mott continued: "I'm not traveling as much, and I'm skipping out on extracurricular activities I valued. It's taking a toll on my personal life."
Ballot box impact
Experts such as Bullock believe the economy will have a major impact on next month's elections.
"The president's party almost always loses seats in a midterm election," he explained. "Then it's the president's approval rating and the economy that determine how many seats they'll lose. This year, I think the economy is going to play an even bigger part than normal given how prevalent it is."
According to a new Gallup poll released this month, 51% of Americans surveyed said they trust Republicans more with the economy, compared with 41% who said they trust Democrats. That is the widest gap Gallup has seen in more than 30 years.
The outcome of this election will likely determine whether President Biden can enact major portions of his agenda during the remaining two years of his term. A Republican takeover of either chamber of Congress would make passing all but the most broadly bipartisan measures difficult.
For Republican-leaning voters such as Robert Ellis, a lawyer from New Orleans, Louisiana, stymying the President's agenda would be a good thing.
"The economy is my key consideration at the federal level," he said, "and that includes energy policy. Biden's policy is terrible, and the increase in oil prices is a direct result of his agenda. We're about to see a Republican-dominated election, and it's because of this economy."
While the economic terrain may not favor Democrats, many voters' concerns extend beyond their finances.
"There is something that's different about this election," Bullock said. "Republicans in conservative states across the country are passing legislation on abortion that's harsher than what voters seem to want."
Bullock said that while many conservative voters were happy to see restrictive abortion laws enacted in several states after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that affirmed abortion rights nationwide, many moderates and even some conservatives have been troubled by state laws criminalizing the procedure.
Democrats hope the passions ignited by changes to abortion laws in America will drive huge numbers of Democrat-leaning voters to the polls and provide a counterbalance to Republicans' perceived advantages on economic matters.
"I generally base my vote on social issues," said Alex Hamman, an independent voter in New Orleans. "I'm a single man with no kids and not much debt, so while the economy is bad, my focus is on issues that affect mine and others' freedom."
Paige Benson, a public school teacher in Queens, New York, who typically votes for Democrats, agreed. While the price of gasoline and food is having a big impact on her finances, she prioritizes other issues at the ballot box.
"As a teacher and an aunt, I'm devastated at what's being done to our rights," she said. "Women's rights like abortion, of course, but also teachers in Florida not being able to talk with their students who bring up homosexuality, or how our terrible gun laws cause schools to feel unsafe, or education policy in general. When I think about voting for our kids, those are the issues that are important."
No one knows how the crosscurrents of economic and social issues will play out on November 8, but some polling data suggest Democrats might not fare as poorly on Election Day as many analysts had assumed before the Supreme Court's abortion ruling in June.
A recent poll from YouGov, for example, showed that 9% of respondents say abortion is now their top issue — up from 4% a year ago — and that 75% of those respondents plan to vote Democrat.
"Is it going to change the election? Probably not," Bullock said. "But it could keep the Democrats close in the House, and it might even gain them a seat in the Senate. So maybe it's going to prove a good strategy."
But, he added, "the economy is still going to be king, and there are more economic numbers to be released in the next month. Who knows how that will change the equation? A lot can still happen between now and Election Day."