Experts say conflicting economic indicators allow both Republicans and Democrats to cherry-pick talking points in their efforts to spin federal investments as either runaway spending that has overheated the market or a strategic inoculation against recession. (Many economists agree federal relief played a modest role in driving inflation, alongside global supply chain interruptions and other issues.)

Despite the muddy economic outlook, some Democrats have continued to tout the impact of their historic spending bills. Others, though, have pivoted away from the economy to culture war issues they hope will reliably mobilize voters. Republicans, meanwhile, have often campaigned against federal spending despite voting for COVID-19 aid under former President Donald Trump or benefiting locally from recovery dollars.

Recent polling has shown that economic concerns remain a priority for many voters. How candidates talk about the economy, then, is likely to have real ramifications for the balance of power in Washington, D.C. The results on Nov. 8 may say less about the state of the economy than the stories voters want to believe.

Travis Ridout.

Travis Ridout, a political advertising researcher at Washington State University, said the hardline positions being dug out on federal spending – even among representatives who benefit from it – partly reflect broader partisan divides.

Campaigning on local issues and bringing resources back to a district may have worked years ago, but gerrymandering has resulted in fewer truly competitive districts, meaning that boosting turnout among the party’s base often matters more than peeling off theoretical swing voters. And that means playing to hot-button national issues.

“It means talking about abortion or the ‘scourge’ of immigration or whatever it is, as opposed to, I brought price supports for farmers in our district, or I got this road repaved,” Ridout said. “If all I need to do is make sure that my people show up to vote, then maybe it doesn’t make sense to talk about actually passing legislation. Maybe I just need to make people mad.”

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