Mike Blake / Reuters file
Gas prices have been falling sharply from near-record highs seen recently in California, where supplies were constrained by a major refinery shutdown.
It's no surprise that voters in Tuesday's presidential election identified the economy as the No. 1 issue in the campaign, far ahead of health care and the federal budget deficit.
But it was a surprise that nearly four in 10 voters identified rising prices as the biggest economic problem facing people like them. That's nearly as many voters as said that unemployment was the biggest problem.
After all, unemployment has long been considered the toughest and most intractable economic problem, with more than 12 million people out of work and actively looking for a job. The unemployment rate, which hit a 25-year high of 10 percent early in Obama's presidency, has only fallen below 8 percent recently.
Meanwhile inflation has generally been running well under 2 percent, and Federal Reserve bankers repeatedly have said they feel comfortable that low inflation allows them to keep interest rates at rock-bottom levels.
Yet in an exit poll of more than 25,000 voters conducted by NBC News, 37 percent identified rising prices as the biggest problem facing people like them.
Unemployment was cited by 38 percent, only slightly more than the number who said inflation was their top economic concern. Taxes were named by 14 percent and the housing market was the top concern of 8 percent.
Chris Christopher, director of U.S. and global consumer economics for IHS Global Insight, said it makes sense that people would point to rising prices because it's something people deal with on an everyday basis.
“It’s a personal question: What affects them directly?” he said.
Unemployment is only the most worrisome issue for people who are either out of a job or fear they will be, Christopher noted. On the other hand, almost everyone has to pay for things like food, gas, health care and housing — and likely has some sense of whether those bills are going up or staying the same.
Christopher’s research has shown that just a small increase in gas prices can affect how consumers are feeling about their finances, even though the cost of gas represents only a tiny portion of most people’s household budget.
Still, the fact that so many people named rising prices was somewhat surprising because consumer prices actually haven’t been rising all that much.
Gas prices have been falling rather sharply recently, with the exception of regional spikes related to Superstorm Sandy.
Electricity and natural gas prices, which tend to be volatile, are lower than they were a year ago, according to the government data.
Food prices are expected to go up in the coming months because of this year's severe drought, which destroyed many crops used for feed. But so far this year food prices have not risen much, in part because of unusually low fruit and vegetable prices, according to the Agriculture Department.
Overall, the USDA is projecting food prices will rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent in 2012 and 3 to 4 percent in 2013.
Christopher said he expects wage gains to continue to outpace inflation, in large part because prices have been rising so slowly.
President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, tried to make rising prices part of his appeal for why the country needed new leadership. In the first presidential debate, he pointed out that median incomes have fallen in recent years relative to rising prices for everything from gas to food to health care.
“Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed,” Romney said.
The exit polls could be a sign that Americans share Romney’s concern about rising prices. But clearly Romney wasn’t able to convince enough people that was a good enough reason to replace Obama.
Still, the exit polls showed voters do think there is much work to be done to improve the economy. More than three-fourths of those polled said the economy is either “poor” or “not so good.”