Why gas prices aren’t likely to decide the 2012 election

at 10:38 AM ET, 03/12/2012

This morning’s Washington Post-ABC poll shows that President Obama’s poll numbers are falling in tandem with rising gas prices. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of how he’s handling the situation at the pump. Could gas prices end up swaying the 2012 election after all?


(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
It’s hard to rule anything out, but evidence remains thin that gasoline will be a determining factor in November. While Americans love to grumble about expensive gasoline — and with good reason — political science research suggests that it’s not the main thing that shifts votes. Nate Silver, for one, has found that “there’s not a lot of evidence that oil prices are all that important” a factor in presidential elections. Nor do gasoline prices necessarily dictate the public’s view of the White House: Back during George W. Bush’s presidency, there was a much-linked graph showing his approval ratings climbing and dipping in lockstep with gas prices. But subsequent analysis by political scientist Brendan Nyhan showed that the correlation was just a “statistical artifact.”

The more severe worry for Obama, at this point, is that soaring gas prices could stomp on the nascent economic recovery. The way this typically happens is that pricey gasoline starts crimping the checkbooks of U.S. consumers, who then have less money to spend on other things. (In the Post-ABC poll, most respondents said they were already feeling the pinch.) That leads to slower growth. And slower growth, political scientists agree, really can sink a presidency. As Silver puts it, “higher gas prices are important to the extent that they affect things like G.D.P., inflation and unemployment. But there isn’t evidence that they matter above and beyond that.”

That said, it’s not yet clear whether oil prices actually will crush the current recovery. There’s certainly reason for concern: James Hamilton, an economist at UC San Diego, has found that most U.S. recessions since World War II have been preceded by a sharp run-up in oil prices. But, oddly enough, one person who isn’t gloomy about our current predicament is Hamilton himself. “I find myself in the unusual position,” he recently wrote, “of being less concerned about the impact of oil prices on the U.S. economy than many other analysts.” Hamilton notes that, for now, oil prices are simply moving back to 2011 levels. And price increases that simply reverse earlier declines are less harmful than historic new highs.

For instance, high oil prices have historically inflicted disproportionate harm on the U.S. economy by leading to a cut-back in sales of SUVs and other inefficient vehicles that Detroit has long specialized in. But this time around, he notes, sales are holding steady — perhaps because U.S. automakers have shifted to selling fuel-efficient models. Moreover, low natural gas prices, a warm winter, and improved fuel efficiency have helped insulate U.S. consumers from pricey oil to date. Overall energy expenditures are actually down this year. Americans have been grappling with expensive oil for several years now, and they appear to be adapting.

That should come as a quiet relief to most incumbent politicians. Because the unsatisfying reality is that there’s not a whole lot the White House or Congress can actually do to lower gasoline prices. Oil prices are skyrocketing because global crude supplies remain tight and tensions with Iran are making traders skittish about a possible conflict in a crucial oil-producing region. If Obama could figure out a way to calm down the situation with Iran, that might cause crude prices to settle back down.

But apart from that, options are limited. More domestic drilling won’t bring back $2.50-per-gallon gas, as Newt Gingrich has suggested — oil prices are dictated by the vast world market, of which U.S. production is just a small fraction. The still-in-limbo Keystone XL pipeline is just as likely to raise gasoline prices in the Midwest as anything else. Cracking down on “financial speculators,” as many Democrats have called for, isn’t particularly promising, as many oil traders simply appear to be following fundamentals. And, judging by past experience, releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve won’t offer much more than very short-lived relief. Meanwhile, Americans are becoming significantly more oil efficient, but that’s a slow, painstaking process.

That won’t stop politicians from talking about the issue. And it won’t stop Americans from expressing their disapproval. But those are two very different things from swaying an election.

Update: Here’s another notable aspect of the Post-ABC poll to consider, pointed out to me by Third Way’s Josh Freed. At the moment, 63 percent of Americans say that gas prices are causing them financial hardship, with 36 percent saying the gas squeeze is causing “serious” financial hardship. (See Question 11.) But those are actually the lowest hardship numbers since May of 2008 — and, in fact, it’s virtually identical to what Americans were saying in May of 2004, six months before George W. Bush won re-election.

 
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