High gas prices curb driving habits — and Obama’s approval rating


A woman returns to her car after filling up at a gas station March 9. (Gregory Bull/AP)
April 25, 2011

Soaring gasoline prices are biting into household incomes and nibbling at Americans’ fuel consumption — and support for President Obama, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

About six in 10 respondents said they had cut back on driving because of rising fuel prices, and seven in 10 said that high pump prices are causing financial hardship.

Obama, like previous presidents in times of high oil prices, is taking a hit. Only 39 percent of those who call gas prices a “serious financial hardship” approve of the way he is doing his job, and 33 percent of them say he’s doing a good job on the economy.

The Energy Information Administration said Monday that gas prices climbed last week to $3.88 a gallon, up 81 cents since the start of the year. That is the highest pump price since August 2008, before the financial meltdown.

Evidence of motorists’ hardships is littering the roads. AAA says the number of motorists running out of gas has been surging. John Townsend, a spokesman for the automobile association, said that cash-strapped members “are pushing the envelope” and that emergency gas deliveries to stranded members jumped nationwide, including by 40 percent in the District.

That sort of hardship could slow Obama’s reelection campaign. The Post-ABC poll shows that 60 percent of independents who say they’ve been hit hard by surging gas prices also say they definitely won’t support Obama in his bid for reelection.

In a hypothetical matchup with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the top GOP performer in the Post-ABC poll, Romney wins by 24 points among the independents who have taken a severe financial hit because of gas prices, and the president is up 7 percentage points among other independents.

At a fundraiser in Southern California last week, where pump prices are the highest in the country, Obama acknowledged the political peril of high gas prices. He said, “My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people.”

He tried to show that he feels motorists’ pain. “I admit, Secret Service doesn’t let me fill up the pump anymore,” he said. “But it hasn’t been that long since I did.”

The poll also shows the stubborn nature of gasoline consumption and the difficulty of weaning the country off its dependence on imported oil. About a quarter of all Americans say they would not alter their driving habits until prices, which are about $1 a gallon higher than a year ago, climb an additional $1.10 or to more than $5.

Although gasoline prices are just a quarter of a dollar short of their all-time record of $4.11 for a gallon of regular set in July 2008, the Energy Information Administration forecast this month that gas consumption would average about 9.3 million barrels a day over the peak summer driving season, a 0.5 percent increase over last summer.

“Population growth and a recovering economy contribute to gasoline consumption growth,” the EIA said, adding that high gas prices and better fuel efficiency standards would dampen demand. Consumption of diesel fuel is expected to climb 2.3 percent because of higher industrial output and trade.

“I think the evidence is strong that people are not very price responsive and that there are no magic thresholds where the effect changes suddenly,” said Severin Borenstein, a professor at the University of California Berkeley business school and director of the California Energy Institute.

In 2008 when prices last spiked, motorists carpooled, households drove the more efficient of their cars when a choice was possible, and many people opted for public transportation. But the impact was slight.

Borenstein says the drop in consumption was 3 to 4 percentage points. “That’s a pretty small demand response when the price of gasoline nearly doubles,” he said. Moreover, he said, “this was happening in context of a giant recession, so there were income effects as well.”

Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that “consumers are less responsive today than in the past, especially when compared to the 1970s.” With the growth of families with two income earners and other social changes, motorists are less likely to regard their day-to-day driving as discretionary.

But, Knittel said, “if prices continue to be high, they start to change what cars they buy, and manufacturers start to change the cars they offer. So it really depends on the time frame.”

Knittel said that the increase in gasoline prices is partly a result of the recovering economy. “One of the reasons gas prices are high is that we are coming out of the recession,” he said. “So it’s sort of bittersweet. The economy is getting strong, but it’s hurting our pocketbook.”

That could circle around and undercut the recovery. Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland’s business school, estimates that the spike in gas prices since September translates into a 5 percent cut in discretionary income and that Americans “will be eating fewer restaurant meals, wearing fewer new clothes, curtailing summer vacation plans, and postponing furniture purchases and home improvements.”

In the Post-ABC poll, 12 percent of people who consider gas prices a financial hardship said they had slashed spending elsewhere.

The telephone poll was conducted April 14 to 17 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The margin of sampling error is 3.5 percentage points.

Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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