COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager had a point – at least among Ohio voters – when he coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Since 2016, the number of voters in the Buckeye State who have tapped the economy as the No. 1 concern driving them to the ballot box has gradually grown, according to a review of past NBC-affiliated and Suffolk University polls. As healthcare and immigration become less salient, events like Jan. 6 Capitol attack and the overturn of Roe v. Wade have caused other concerns to rise in the ranks.

“Supermarket bills are 30, 40% higher, so instead of spending $100, it’s now $130,” Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson College polling, said. “This is starting to take some impact on the American voter, and that’s what we’re looking at in these midterms.”

Issue 1Issue 2Issue 3
2022Economy (44.8%)Threats to democracy (14.8%)Abortion access (12.7%)
2020Economy (38%)COVID-19 response (16%)Social justice (11%)
2018Economy (23%)Healthcare (22%)Immigration (11%)
2016Jobs/economy (20%)Terrorism/national security (18%)Supreme Court (15%)
A look at Ohioans’ most important issues in the 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections. Polling data provided by Suffolk University (2016), NBC News/Marist College (2018) and Emerson College (2020, 2022).

While the percentage of Ohio survey respondents who chose the economy as their top concern more than doubled from 2016 to 2022, economic issues have manifested in different ways throughout the state’s history.

Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University, said over the past 30 or 40 years, the answer to the question, “What are the top three issues in Ohio?”, was a no-brainer: “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said.

“Ohio has been a state that’s been undergoing an economic transformation where we’ve lost a lot of our manufacturing jobs over the last number of decades,” Asher said. “And so communities that were once prosperous, you know, really are struggling right now.”

Today, however, Asher said Ohio’s jobs news is good news. The state’s 4% unemployment rate sits just above the national rate, and there are more job openings than there are people willing to fill those jobs, he said.

It’s inflation and the soaring costs of gas, groceries and housing that has struck a nerve among Ohio voters, Kimball said. 

“Three years ago, you say, ‘I’m going to retire, I’ve got my plan, here’s my retirement, here’s my Social Security,’” Kimball said. “Now, the economy has changed, and you’re no longer feeling as comfortable in that retirement period. You’re 35 to 49 years old trying to buy a house today – much more difficult than it was three years ago.”

Like past elections, Asher said the state’s political contenders have campaigned largely around Ohioans’ top-of-mind issues while tiptoeing around those that could alienate them from their supporters.

For instance, Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance has likely scored points among voters most concerned with the economy by painting his Democratic opponent Tim Ryan’s ties to President Joe Biden. Biden's administration, Vance argued, has wasted trillions of dollars “that we just don’t have.”

To the advantage of Ryan’s campaign, on the other hand, he has taken digs at Vance by exploiting Ohioans’ No. 2 and 3 issues: access to abortion and threats to democracy. Ryan has chastised Vance as a “political extremist” – both for supporting abortion bans that forced some Ohioans to travel out of state and for questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 victory over Donald Trump.

“Some talking points might also be a reflection of what their base is really concerned about,” Asher said.

Issues prevalent to Ohioans in past election cycles, like healthcare, COVID-19, terrorism and national security, and reducing the deficit, seemed to have died down among voters, Asher said. 

In 2020, for example, survey respondents ranked social justice as the No. 3 most pressing issue driving them to the polls, an aftermath of the June murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

This year, social justice didn’t even make the cut as an option for Ohio voters to select, and Asher said the issue didn’t flood the airwaves like it has in past campaign ads.

“Social justice concerns have been superseded by concerns about the economy, inflation, about the future of democracy – doesn’t mean that’s not important,” he said. “But that’s not the issue that’s on top of the mind of as many voters today as it once was.”