By Jason Lange and Tim Reid
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The unexpected rise in inflation reported on Tuesday was an unwelcome blow for President Joe Biden's Democrats, but a new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Democratic voters just as enthusiastic as their Republican counterparts, pointing to a potentially close contest in November's elections.
Republicans remain favored to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives - with the Senate on a knife-edge - amid widespread dissatisfaction with Biden's presidency and months of sharp price increases that the poll showed remain the top concern for Republican and Democratic voters alike.
Labor Department data showed consumer prices rose a tenth of a point in August, confounding analysts' expectations for a decrease. The rise was fueled by higher prices for food, rent and healthcare.
The results of a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, however, show Democrats appear just as eager to vote as Republicans, running counter to expectations that a weak economy would depress enthusiasm in the president's party, said Daron Shaw, an expert on polling and elections at the University of Texas at Austin.
Some 63% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans say they are completely certain they will vote in November, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Sept. 7-12. In a Jan 31-Feb 7 poll, 55% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans said they were certain. The similar levels of certainty in the latest poll suggest neither side may have an edge in voter turnout.
"Basically this points to a really close race," Shaw said.
The poll, which gathered responses from 4,411 U.S. adults, had a credibility interval of between 2 and 5 percentage points, meaning that the enthusiasm gap between the two parties is too small to tell who has the edge.
Democrats will be defending an 11-seat advantage in the House, while the 100-member Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties.
Of respondents in the new poll, 37% said they planned to vote for a Democrat in their congressional district, compared to 34% for Republicans. Fifteen percent were undecided.
Political experts still see Republicans as having the better odds of controlling the House next year, in part because decades of elections have shown that the party in the White House typically loses seats during midterm elections.
`A DRAMATIC CONTRAST`
Democrats are struggling against major headwinds this year - Biden's poor popularity and the Ukraine war, which has helped to push inflation to 40-year highs. Republicans have seized on inflation to hammer Democrats on the campaign trail and in television ads, blaming it on higher federal spending by Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"No issue defines the terms of this election as clearly as high prices for energy, groceries and other staple goods," said Republican strategist John Ashbrook.
Twenty-eight percent of respondents in the Reuters/Ipsos poll said inflation was America's biggest problem, with 20% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans selecting it from a list of issues in the poll. Respondents picked Republicans over Democrats - 37% to 26% - as the party with a better plan to fight inflation.
Most respondents said the root cause of inflation was related to economic disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic or Ukraine war, a view shared by many economists, while only a third said federal government spending was the driver.
One factor behind Democratic enthusiasm appears to be outrage over a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that ended the right to an abortion. Another is angst over Donald Trump's influence over U.S. politics, including his endorsement of Republican candidates who deny that Biden won the 2020 election.
One in five Democrats in the poll said America's biggest problem was political extremism or changes to abortion laws.
Democrats believe the advantage Republicans enjoyed for most of the year because of inflation has been blunted by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling restricting abortion rights, Trump’s continued false claims about the 2020 election and his deepening legal problems, and recent legislative wins for Biden on drug costs and climate change.
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, also pointed to Biden's recent speech slamming Trump and his followers as extremists.
"It's such a dramatic contrast," Finney said. "That is mobilizing voters."
(Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington and Tim Reid in Los Angeles, editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)