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Pa. voters talk about how the economy may impact their choice for president

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Inflation appears to be one of President Biden's biggest and most persistent political challenges. In polls, voters seem to trust his Republican rival Donald Trump more on the economy. NPR's Asma Khalid has been tracking voter attitudes since prices first started ticking up a few years ago, and she joins us now. So, Asma, I remember, in the summer of 2021, I had just started at NPR, and you were traveling to a county in Pennsylvania to report on how frustrated people felt at the time. Now, we're here three years later, and you made the trip back there to check in. What'd you find?

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

That's right. And I went up to this county, Northampton County. It's in Pennsylvania. And, A, the reason I initially went there is that it is one of these rare counties that went for Barack Obama, then Donald Trump and most recently for Joe Biden. So you can find a lot of Republicans, Democrats and, you know, occasionally, I would say, some folks in between. But hardly anyone I spoke with, regardless of their politics, felt truly upbeat about the economy.

LUIS ESCARRAMAN: I'm a truck driver. I own my own truck, and it's really difficult.

KHALID: That's Luis Escarraman. He told me fixing his truck, maintenance, car parts, plus diesel fuel all feels so pricey.

ESCARRAMAN: I mean, I could do my living, but compared to what I used to have, I need to work extra to get what I used to have before.

KHALID: He's a Republican, and he's nostalgic for the economy five, six years ago, even though he remembers life under Trump was at times alarming.

ESCARRAMAN: I know it was a lot of fights in the country, a lot of - you know, it was kind of like a civil war. But financially, it was better.

KHALID: Escarraman hates that the U.S. is printing money, giving it to other countries for wars, when he says people at home are struggling. His fond memories of the Trump economy are not that unique.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING SHOPPING CART)

KHALID: Take Ruthann Aris, a self-described Democrat I met in the parking lot at Walmart.

RUTHANN ARIS: It's hard to stay on top of expenses. I buy a lot of frozen dinners. (Laughter) So they have gone up.

KHALID: Aris, who's retired, says she feels personally financially worse off than she did during the Trump years.

ARIS: I know when Trump was in office, it was sad, but my 401(k) was just going up and up and up. I mean, it was wonderful to watch it. But what's the trade-off?

KHALID: Like a lot of voters, Aris doesn't mention that last year of the economy under Trump and COVID. She's frustrated with prices these days. But she says she still intends to vote for Biden this November.

ARIS: I think he comes across much better than the alternative. You know, you have a more stable USA. And it's not worth the short-term gain of a 401(k) going up.

KHALID: What Aris describes seems to jive with recent polling. A survey from NBC News earlier this month found that while voters say inflation is the No. 1 concern facing the country, and they give Trump a double digit advantage on the issue, they also say it's not the top deciding issue for them. When it comes to that, instead, folks point to democracy, abortion or the border, depending on their politics. And that is akin to what I heard, too. I met Greg Poff outside a polling site during the Pennsylvania primary last week. He's a Republican.

GREG POFF: People want to complain about the economy and everything like that. If you can control the flow of people into the country and get the people that aren't supposed to be here out, everything else will fall like dominoes.

KHALID: A little later, I came across Ashley Carragher, a Democrat.

ASHLEY CARRAGHER: Abortion rights are No. 1. I'm pro-choice. So that's what I'm looking for when I vote.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Asma, the question I have here is, will people actually vote for or against President Biden because of the economy?

KHALID: I mean, that is essentially the same question I have. And I don't know. I mean, there are some indications in polling that voters say the economy is more pivotal to them than it was in the past. And we've long heard from political experts that people vote with their wallets. But that didn't exactly appear to be the most motivating factor in the recent midterms. I will say that broadly, the vibes around the economy are not great, even though there are some positive economic data points like low unemployment. Julie Smith is an economist at Lafayette College. She lives and works in Northampton County. She says, we are all still using pre-pandemic prices as our mental yardstick.

JULIE SMITH: I think it's just hard. I think it's hard because people don't like things to cost more than they did before. And until that adjusts for everyone in their minds, it's going to be hard to convince people, perhaps, otherwise.

KHALID: You know, in recent months, Biden has spoken about trying to curb housing and health care costs. His team is also trying to talk up all the legislation he's signed on infrastructure, semiconductor chips. But it's not clear that that is breaking through. I will say, you know, the big question is, will the economy actually be the issue that makes or breaks Biden's reelection bid?

MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks a lot.

KHALID: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.