GOP on Gas Prices: 'Quick! Look Over There!'

Gas pumps
We've seen this movie before. Ahead of a big holiday that traditionally involves post-winter travel, gas prices begin to rise. They rise in the spring, ahead of Memorial Day and Easter. Then later, they'll raise again before the Fourth of July. We've been spared the worst of this lately, because of a poor economy. Gas prices need to respond to the economy and low demand means low prices. The price of a good or recovering economy is higher prices. It can't really be helped. And, of course, there's always the "genius of the free market" -- in the form of speculators -- artificially inflate the price of oil.

In our present circumstance, speculators are the biggest problem. Oil prices are actually falling -- and prices at the pump rise. If you ever needed any evidence that the price of gas is inflated, there you go.

Still, it's the president taking the beating here.

[Washington Post:]

Disapproval of President Obama’s handling of the economy is heading higher — alongside gasoline prices — as a record number of Americans now give the president “strongly” negative reviews on the 2012 presidential campaign’s most important issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Increasingly pessimistic views of Obama’s performance on the economy — and on the federal budget deficit — come despite a steadily brightening employment picture and other signs of economic improvement, and they highlight the political sensitivity of rising gas prices.

The potential political con­sequences are clear, with the ­rising public disapproval reversing some of the gains the president had made in hypothetical general-election matchups against possible Republican rivals for the White House. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) now both run about evenly with Obama. The findings come just five weeks after Obama appeared to be getting a boost from the improving economy.

Actually, it wouldn't surprise me if a later poll came out and proved this wrong. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised by the alternative either. The question is, come election day, do gas prices matter?

[Brad Plumer, Washington Post's WonkBlog:]

It’s hard to rule anything out, but evidence remains thin that gasoline will matter much come November. While Americans love to grumble about expensive gasoline — and with good reason — political science research suggests that they don’t tend to vote over it. 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 real worry is that gas prices can sink the economy -- and there's no evidence that that's happening either. And history does not support this trend continuing. "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," Plumer says. "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."

And think back to 2008. Sure, the economic meltdown finally killed the GOP's "drill, baby, drill" chants. But that line wasn't getting them anywhere anyway. John McCain consistently lagged in the polls, with his one brief moment in the lead coming after he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate (and before America found out who Sarah Palin actually was).

On more lasting issues, Obama still leads. Taylor Marsh looks at the same Washington Post/ABC News poll and finds that "when asked who cares more about issues that matter most to women, Pres. Obama beats Republicans 55 to 30, which is a massive shift from the 2010 midterms." Unlike most voter and gas prices, it's very evident that women can be convinced to vote on women's issues. And Republicans are currently making it very easy to run on those issues. In fact, I'd have to say that given the current GOP tone toward women, women's rights, and reproductive health, it would be irresponsible not to make women's issues a major plank in the Democratic platform. To do anything else would mean throwing women to the wolves. Not only is it the smart thing to do, it's the right thing to do. President Obama and Democrats should stay on that message not just because it's a winner and Republicans are trying to change the subject, but because it's their duty. The GOP gas prices line -- as much as it seems to be working at the moment -- is a distraction from what's hurting them most. They're being pounded over women's issues, so they're saying, "Quick! Look over there!"

At best, this poll is probably a bump in the road (at worst, it's an outlier and not representative). We'll see. We've never had a gas prices election -- not that plenty of would-be presidents haven't tried. But we have had rights elections and those tend to be winners. Expect the Republicans to continue to hammer Obama on gas prices. Because from their perspective, it's saving them from discussing these disastrous social issues. But also expect Democrats to try to deflect that criticism to oil companies and speculators, while continuing to make women the bigger focus.


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