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How inflation may influence voters in a Florida swing district

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Americans consistently say their biggest concern is the economy. And most Americans don't approve of how President Biden has handled it, especially when it comes to inflation. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been talking to people about what this means when it comes to their vote. She traveled to Pinellas County, near St. Petersburg on the west coast of Florida, to find some answers.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I meet Debbie Pisco as she loads groceries into her cart at Walmart. She's a Republican - retired, on a fixed income - but her blunt, bleak economic outlook is kind of common.

DEBBIE PISCO: Just cost of living - it's just crazy.

KHALID: This is one of those exceedingly rare so-called boomerang counties, meaning that voters here first chose President Obama. Then they decided to go for President Trump. And subsequently, they opted for President Biden. It's also a region of the country that has been really squeezed by rising prices. Inflation rates here are consistently outpacing the average inflation rates in the country, and I've been hearing from voters who are frustrated about grocery bills, electric bills, but also housing costs.

CHRISTINA WILLETTE: Rent prices are really - they're too high.

KHALID: Christina Willette says her rent has gone up $600 a month over the last couple years. She makes $15 an hour as a certified nursing assistant.

WILLETTE: I'm licensed. Like, I'm working in the nursing field. I don't understand why we're making just as much as somebody at McDonald's and Wawas and them type of places. We went to school for what we do.

KHALID: Willette that has four kids in this two-bedroom apartment. I asked her when it was that she really started feeling squeezed financially.

WILLETTE: Really since Biden's been in office. That's who I picked, but it seems like that's when it started.

KHALID: She doesn't blame Biden, but if he runs for president again, she says she probably won't vote for him. If anything, she's been more impressed by how Ron DeSantis, her Republican governor, has handled the economy - trying to keep schools and businesses open throughout the pandemic so someone like her could work. But for other people I met around here, the frustration is not all about rising prices. It's also about the message. They feel like the White House keeps insisting the economy is healthier than what they're witnessing with their own eyes. Take Tiffany Holmes, for example.

TIFFANY HOLMES: I can see that prices rise and fall. You know, I can understand that happening to anybody's term. But what I don't like is that I think that we're not being told the truth. So if we - if you're being told the truth and it's bad, that's fine, you know? I think people - that's with anything.

KHALID: The White House often touts the low unemployment rate, record job creation and last year's historic economic growth as evidence of a strong economy. But around here, the latest inflation data is in the double digits. Jared Muha had hoped to buy a house when he became a high school history teacher, but he can't afford that. His rent went up $400 this year. So instead of a house, he found himself looking for a roommate.

JARED MUHA: I have a master's degree, six years of experience and two jobs, and I don't feel like I can just, like, live comfortably in the world. I knew I wasn't going to be rich when I got a degree in history, you know what I mean? But I would like to just be able to live comfortably and without the worry that, like, yeah, someday I might need to move in with a friend.

KHALID: The 28-year-old voted for Biden, quote, "very reluctantly." He wishes the president would follow through on his campaign promise to forgive a portion of student debt. He says that would make a big difference in his life.

MUHA: The only thing the Democratic Party offers me is that they are not the Republican Party, and I think they know that you.

KHALID: Muha says he'll probably still vote in the November midterms, but a majority of eligible voters will not. And those non-voters - they tend to be people who don't have as much money.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can I get y'all anything to drink, any extra water?

KHALID: Five days a week, the nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay serves free dinners. That's where I met Kevin Connors. He works as a security guard making $16 an hour. He told me the economy is in the dumps.

KEVIN CONNORS: The food prices are ridiculous. Our government blaming Ukraine and everybody for our gas prices, which is ridiculous. The housing's ridiculous.

KHALID: Connors hasn't voted lately. He says he's disillusioned with all his choices.

CONNORS: Everyone we have that say they're going to do something, they do completely different.

KHALID: Political experts will tell you winning midterm elections is not about persuading people like Connors. It's about energizing the base. And so I went to a meeting of the Pinellas Federated Republican Women's club.

(CROSSTALK)

KHALID: I wanted to get a sense of what is energizing Republicans. Pam McAloon told me voters are not just focused on prices.

PAM MCALOON: Yes, the economy is one thing - extremely important. That's No. 1. But then when you see a former president being treated the way he was treated just recently, that's really going to energize people - go out and vote.

KHALID: She says people in her circle are angry at the FBI search of Donald Trump's home at Mar-a-Lago. Anger can be a really effective motivation for voters, and Democrats insist their base is angry, too, about rights being taken away.

Jennifer Griffin is an OB-GYN. She says her patients are upset with all the rules - the 24-hour waiting period for an abortion, the 15-week ban passed by the state legislature.

JENNIFER GRIFFIN: They're angry. And they say, what can I do about it? I said, the one thing you can do is vote. The second thing you can do is get everyone you know to vote.

FADEL: Asma Khalid is with us now to unpack what we just heard. Good to have you back.

KHALID: Hey there.

FADEL: So it sounds like the people you talked to are experiencing sticker shock, but they're not necessarily being driven politically by that.

KHALID: Yeah. You know, I went to Florida thinking that inflation would be the primary factor for people's votes, but I found out it's more complicated. You know, there's no doubt that people, including Democrats, are frustrated with the cost of living. But I met this woman, Gretchen Johnson, who leads the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and she doesn't think it's actually going to be the deciding factor.

GRETCHEN JOHNSON: Anybody who's decided whichever way they're going to go, no one's going to change their point of view because of the economy, I think. Either you're going to blame Joe Biden or you're not going to blame Joe Biden for inflation and gas and all that stuff. So that's kind of already set, I feel like.

KHALID: So the economy, in a strange way, is the single issue voters repeatedly point to in the polls as their biggest concern. But in interviews that I had, it seems like it's not the primary factor they're going to vote on. I will say, you know, still, it does factor into the president's approval rating and whether people feel the country is headed in the right or wrong direction.

FADEL: So it looks like the president and Democrats plan to take this new law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and run on it in November. Based on your time talking to voters, how do you think that will play?

KHALID: You know, the White House insists that this law will help people's personal economy. And they point out not a single Republican voted for it. But Democrats do face a messaging challenge. Most people I met did not mention this piece of legislation. The White House is planning to hit the road this month to sell it to the public. But it's worth pointing out that some of the biggest benefits, like lower costs for prescription drugs for people on Medicare - that won't actually take full effect before people go to the polls in November.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid. Asma, thanks.

KHALID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROHNE'S "TWELVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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