It's that time of year again. The flowers are in bloom, the weather is starting to improve (well, everywhere but Oregon), and politicians can only talk about gas. Spring, as it does every year, drives up gas prices. Why? Supply and demand. Demand is increasing, supply is slowly decreasing. But yet politicians and polling outfits continue to speculate about why. This makes sense: gas prices are annoying and they are driven, in small ways in the US, by policy. That doesn't mean that President Obama can control them, or even can have any effect on their year to year fluctuations. The price of gas is rising. It will be for the foreseeable future.
Yet, here we go again. Newt Gingrich is promising that he'll make sure gas prices go down to $2.50, even though he is more likely to put a colony on the moon. Mitt Romney is calling for the Keystone XL pipeline and more fracking, despite its numerous health and safety implications. Obama is calling for eliminating the gas industry's tax breaks, which is good policy, but irrelevant.
Since it's a topic of conversation, pollsters are polling and voters will vote based on gas prices. It happened in 2008, when Obama was allegedly buoyed by gas hitting record highs, and it may happen again this year, when voters again eschew rational arguments. This chart shows just how irrational voter's perceptions are:
This time around, meanwhile, gas prices are even higher — the national average is now $3.74 per gallon — largely due to tight supplies and tensions between the United States and Iran (and the latter situation is something the White House actually is heavily involved with). Yet only 18 percent of Americans say the president’s responsible for pump prices. The number of Americans who are refusing to assign blame has jumped. Who knows? Perhaps after years of high gas prices a sense of fatalism has set in.Ezra Klein goes even further in a long piece exploring whether it's gas prices that are hurting Obama's numbers. His conclusion, like mine a week ago, is that it isn't fatalism, it's that gas prices have always had a limited influence on Presidential elections:
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.”What is important is the effect that gas has on the recovery. However, given the warm winter and lower expenditure on oil, that doesn't seem to be an issue. In fact, Klein finds that the numbers of Americans reporting financial hardship from oil doesn't seem to be changing that much, writing that the numbers "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."
Don't pay attention to the noise, watch the recovery. And push for real energy solutions.
The most sensible thing to come out of this discussion is also the most politically disadvantageous to Obama. Bill Gates recently claimed that Obama favors a national energy consumption tax, but thinks that it's a politically unfeasible policy. He's right, just looking at graph above.
So, the only long-term solution to higher gas prices? Tax them and make them even higher. Invest that money in improving our rail network or electrical grid. Good policy, but I wouldn't like to see how that would play in Ohio come November.
(Hat tip to Kevin Drum at Mother Jones for pointing out the graph)