This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.
Back in 1992, when Americans were asked to name the "most important problem facing the country today," 55 percent volunteered something in the realm of economics: 14 percent named unemployment, 11 percent the budget deficit and 2 percent taxes, while another 28 percent just said it was the "economy."
Times improved in the 1990s, and after the 9/11 attack and the war in Iraq, foreign policy concerns took center stage as the economy receded as the "most important problem." As recently as January 2007, just eight percent of Americans named an economic issue when asked the same question.
But now, all that has changed. In acompleted a few weeks ago, the economy had much the same importance it had in 1992. Fifty-three percent of Americans volunteered an economic problem as the "most important" facing the country. Granted, the range of answers differs from those of 1992: while mentions of the economy generally predominate, 14 percent specify gas prices.
And the responses to other questions that measure the economy are sobering: 80 percent say the economy is in bad condition; two-thirds say it is getting worse. Both those figures are near the all-time highs recorded earlier this year. The Bush Administration is getting blamed: only 20 percent in the last poll approve of the way the President is handling the economy - his worst percentage ever (only Jimmy Carter fared worse on this measure).
The economy was the dominant issue for both parties, according to the CBS News Exit Polls that were taken during the primaries this past winter and spring. Given a list of three issues their candidates focused on -- the economy, the war in Iraq, and health care - 51 percent of all Democratic primary voters chose the economy as the top issue, 26 percent the war and 19 percent health care. Republican voters had four choices from the issues their candidates were discussing, and the economy finished first with them, too: 40 percent of all Republican primary voters interviewed chose the economy, 21 percent illegal immigration, 19 percent the war in Iraq, and 17 percent terrorism.
Historically, this should be good for the out-of-power party, but since no incumbent is running, that impact may be muted. And neithernor fared especially well among those primary voters who were particularly concerned about economic issues. Hillary Clinton beat Obama among Democratic voters who chose the economy (51 percent to 44 percent). McCain finished first among Republican candidates who chose the economy as their most important issue (44 percent), beating out Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, but he did not carry a majority of them. In fact, Obama and McCain only captured a majority with voters who said the war in Iraq was the issue that mattered most to their vote.
Today's economic issues, like gas prices, housing prices and mortgage foreclosures, may give the economy issue a different focus in this campaign: it's not just jobs, but it's also prices. The latest Pew Poll, completed last weekend, found the percentage of Americans citing rising prices as the nation's most important economic problem rose from 24 percent in February to 45 percent now. In both the Pew Poll and in CBS News polls, more people now say it's harder to pay their bills than said so in February.
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And if the most important economic concerns shift from jobs and general economic malaise to rising prices and inflation, there may be an opening for Republicans. When inflation rose to double digits in the 1970's, a Democrat (Jimmy Carter) was in the White House. Ronald Reagan successfully used that issue against Carter in the 1980 election. According to that year's CBS News exit poll, Carter hung on to voters who cared about jobs, 49 percent to 43 percent. But Reagan defeated Carter by more than two to one among voters who named other economic problems - the federal budget (67 percent to 25 percent), taxes (66 percent to 27 percent) and voters' biggest concern, inflation. Forty-one percent cited inflation and they voted for Reagan 61 percent to 28 percent.
These days, the McCain campaign is spending time talking about gas prices and what to do about them - and there may be a reason. In the last CBS News/New York Times poll, one of McCain's proposals - building more nuclear power plants -- received 57 percent support from the public, higher than at any time since 1977, before the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl disaster. In a CNN/Opinion Dynamics Poll, seven in ten Americans favor offshore drilling for oil and natural gas - another of McCain's proposals.
In the CBS News/New York Times poll, voters who named the economy as the country's most important problem favored Obama 54 percent to 33 percent. But those who said the most important problem was "gas prices" chose McCain 58 percent to 28 percent. Right now, the economy still trumps energy prices, but there's still a long way to go before November.
By Kathy Frankovic