Could Higher Gas Pump Prices Leave Obama Running On Empty?

Rising gasoline prices and their potential to hurt President Obama’s re-election chances have gotten recurrent journalistic attention during his presidency.

Recent stories in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, for instance, report that officials in Obama’s re-election and White House are nervously eying the rise in gas prices because of its potential to slow the economy, hurt the recovery and make more difficult the president’s argument that the economic situation is slowly but surely improving.

Meanwhile, the same higher gas prices give Republicans another angle of attack against Obama. They blame his energy policies — such as his decision to block the Canadian Keystone XL pipeline project and his renewable-energy push generally — for the higher prices though experts tend to blame Iranian threats to the global oil supply and other world news for the upward pressure on crude oil prices.

This raises the question, what is the connection between high gas prices and presidential elections anyway?

Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog examined this issue in February 2011 just before the Republican presidential campaigns took off in earnest. It was at a stage when Obama was clashing with congressional Republicans who were accusing his energy policies of contributing to higher prices at the pump.

Silver found there to be, at best, a weak correlation between gas prices and presidential elections though he makes the important point that there isn’t as much data as one might want; there have only been 16 presidential elections since 1948, the point at which he starts looking at gas prices, the GDP and election results.

A key excerpt:

“The upshot is this: 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.”

This question has been studied by economists as well, as you might expect. Christopher Decker and Mark Wohar at the University of Nebraska asked the question if higher prices for petroleum products raises the chances of the incumbent party losing in states where it won previously? They found a correlation, especially in states that were big industrial consumers of oil.

An excerpt:

“In answering the question of whether or not energy prices impact state’s proclivity to vote against the incumbent party’s presidential election bid, the answer appears to be a qualified, “yes”. The results indicate that overall there is little evidence that increases in petroleum product prices impact the probability of the incumbent party losing a state in (an) election (it) previously carried.

“However, if one focuses attention on those states that are primarily energy consuming (due to a significant industrial sector,) then we do indeed find that the probability of the incumbent party losing a state previously carried increases with increases in petroleum product prices.

Worth noting is that several battleground states would be those with energy-intensive manufacturing sectors including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

So it would seem, all things being equal, Obama’s campaign staffers do have reason for concern though just how worried they should be is unclear.

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