It's the grocery cart, stupid: Soaring food costs ominous for Dems, if GOP can seal deal with voters

Republicans push to renew focus on inflation as voters not sold on GOP despite disapproving of Biden's handling of economy.

Updated: September 13, 2022 - 11:18pm

When Democratic political strategist James Carville famously coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" during the 1992 presidential campaign, he recognized that voters were chiefly concerned about their own wallets.

Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton took his strategist's advice, focused on the economy, and won the election — with Carville's words posted on a sign in his campaign headquarters.

Thirty years later, the economy is once again the top issue for voters. Above all, polling has shown voters are primarily concerned about soaring inflation, which reached a four-decade high earlier this summer and remains at historically high levels.

Inflation rose more than economists expected in August, with consumer prices increasing 0.1% from the prior month, according to new data released Tuesday by the Bureau of  Labor Statistics.

The price surge came despite a 10.6% drop in gas prices, which had been on the rise and a chief contributor to inflation for most of the year. The cost of shelter and medical expenses helped offset lower gas prices. The primary factor in the unexpected increase in inflation, however, was a sharp increase in food prices.

The latest government data showed food costs spiked 11.4% over the past year, the largest annual increase since May 1979.

Specifically, restaurant menu prices increased 8%, and grocery prices surged 13.5%.

Americans can see the costs reflected in a wide range of products often bought daily or weekly. The price of eggs, for example, rose 2.9% last month and is up 39.8% over the past year. Prices for cereals and bakery products, meanwhile, rose 1.2% in August and are up 16.4% over the past 12 months. Milk, fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry also became substantially more expensive over the past year. Chicken prices, to cite one food item, have jumped 16.6% over that period.

Still, President Biden touted the latest data as a sign that inflation is improving and his economic policies are working.

"Today's data show progress in fighting inflation," tweeted Biden. "This month, prices overall were essentially flat, gas prices were down, and wages were up — that's good news for American families. My plan is showing we can lower costs, create jobs, and bring manufacturing back to America."

The White House released a statement from Biden similarly touting the data and defending his economic plan, although he acknowledged "we saw some price increases slow from the month before at the grocery store."

Biden on Tuesday also celebrated the recent passage of the Democrats' Inflation Reduction Act, a massive tax and spending package .

Despite Biden's comments on Tuesday, some Democrat economists expressed pessimism about the latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures.

"CPI report not pretty," tweeted Jason Furman, who chaired the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama. "Broad-based relief not coming."

Two months out from the midterm elections, the inflation numbers don't bode well for Democrats.

Experts have cited Biden's economic policies, including Democrat-backed large-scale government spending, as a key cause of higher prices. Polling has also shown for months that the majority of voters disapprove of Biden's handling of the economy generally and inflation specifically. And with high food prices taking their toll on household budgets, Americans are expecting higher grocery bills for the foreseeable future.

"What that data is really showing us is just how much people [have been] feeling the pinch," said Chris Jackson, senior vice president of public affairs in the U.S. for Ipsos, a research and consulting firm. "We've been dealing with inflationary pressures for [many] months. It really starts to increasingly take bites out of sort of more quality-of-life things, such as the type of food you eat or the sort of lifestyle you can live."

Even with Americans needing to stretch their dollars further and disapproving of Biden's policies, however, they don't necessarily see Republicans as a viable alternative.

A majority of both voters overall and independents specifically say that Republicans have not made a strong enough case as to why they should earn support in the midterm elections, according to new polling data from the Trafalgar Group.

"Considering the failure of Afghanistan, inflation, student loans, the recession we are in, the attempted vaccine mandates, the border, and President Biden's dark and dangerous speech recently, the Biden administration has been a complete disaster, and his record low approval numbers show that," said Mark Meckler, president of the Convention of States, which released the poll in partnership with the Trafalgar Group.

Logically, one would think that national Republicans would be riding high, able to take advantage of this situation to create momentum. "Yet, the fact is," said Meckler, "the feckless leadership, poor communication, and what appears to be a non-existent strategy is causing voters to say loud and clear: You need to try harder. If the GOP thinks they are just going to win this thing by not being Joe Biden, they are sorely mistaken."

The GOP seems to recognize there's a problem. A Republican National Committee memo issued Monday is pushing candidates to shore up their messaging and drive their points home to sway swing voters before Election Day in November.

Voters who blame Biden for the economy are likely to vote Republican, according to the memo, but Republicans need to "finish their sentences" to persuade voters that Biden, rather than corporate greed or pent-up demand, is to blame for inflation.

Candidates and incumbent lawmakers seem to be implementing that message in earnest following the release of the latest inflation data.

"Widespread underlying inflation is still not under control, and Americans are paying far too much for everyday goods and services," said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "While the White House celebrates the mislabeled 'Inflation Reduction Act' today, economic data show that food costs rose 11.4% over the past year, the largest 12-month increase since May 1979."

Fellow Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch echoed that point, noting the food price surge before adding, "Today's CPI report confirms what we already know: Americans can't afford Democrats' economy."

Meanwhile, some Republican candidates have been featuring high grocery prices in their political ads.

"The reason why the rising cost of food is so impactful politically is because it's so impactful personally," pollster Frank Luntz told Politico. "Everyone in every community is paying more, and no one thinks they should."

White House officials have pointed to a series of actions, such as encouraging more crop production and combating consolidation in the meatpacking industry, as evidence they're taking action to lower the price of food.

However, Republicans are saying the Biden administration's policies aren't working and instead contributing to the problem, even if the price of gasoline has dropped.

"Americans need to understand that the price of a gallon of diesel has more to do with your day in and day out, your shopping at the grocery store and everything else that you have to have," Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) told the "Just the News, Not Noise" television show last week. "And we don't see that inflation easing because of [Biden's] bad policies. I spoke with a farmer this morning, and we were talking about fertilizer. I told him, 'You know, I don't see relief in sight for our fertilizer purchases.' And so, when you look at the input costs of agriculture, and then what it takes ... I just don't see food inflation going away. And it's got a lot to do with the very bad policies of the Biden administration."