Gas Prices Hurting Obama In The Polls, But Will It Matter In November?

Rising fuel prices are starting to hurt the President in the polls, but it's unclear what that means for November.

As I’ve noted here before, the price of gasoline has been skyrocketing lately and the American people are starting to notice. A survey released over the weekend, for example, found that the average price for self-serve unleaded had risen twelve percent in two weeks to a high of $3.81 per gallon (a number that makes the $3.69/gal I paid this morning just a bit more palatable by the way). Now, the rising cost of fuel seems to be hitting the President where it hurts, in the poll numbers:

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.

Gas prices are a main culprit: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the situation at the pump, where rising prices have already hit hard. Just 26 percent approve of his work on the issue, his lowest rating in the poll. Most Americans say higher prices are already taking a toll on family finances, and nearly half say they think that prices will continue to rise, and stay high.

Friday’s employment report showed a gain of 227,000 jobs in the past month, continuing an upward trend and offering the White House something positive to point to. Still, the survey — conducted Wednesday through Saturday — finds 59 percent of Americans giving Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month. Now, 50 percent give him intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post-ABC News poll, and a jump of nine percentage points.

The negative movement has also stalled what had been a gradual increase since the fall in the president’s overall approval rating. In the new poll, 46 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job; 50 percent disapprove. That’s a mirror image of his 50 to 46 positive split in early February. The downshift is particularly notable among independents — 57 percent of whom now disapprove — and among white people without college degrees, with disapproval among this group now topping approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.

These groups are also the ones whose shifting support has re-shuffled prospective general-election matchups. Among registered voters, Obama is now on par with Romney (47 percent for the president, 49 percent for Romney) and Santorum (49 to 46 percent). Previously, Obama held significant advantages over both.

The Republican presidential race is now a contest between Romney and Santorum. Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independent voters, 33 percent favor Romney for the nomination; 29 percent prefer Santorum. This is the first Post-ABC poll after Santorum’s emergence as a top-tier candidate. Trailing the top two are former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) at 14 percent and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) at 12 percent.

The poll offers some conflicting evidence about the president and the still flagging national economy. In addition to low ratings on his handling of gasoline prices, Obama’s approval rating on the deficit hit an all-time low, with a slender 32 percent giving him positive marks. Among independents, 70 percent disapprove here, also a new high.

Even on foreign policy — a onetime strong point — Obama’s ratings look worse. For the first time in nearly a year, as many Americans disapprove as approve of his handling of the war in Afghanistan. On Iran, a slim majority now disapproves of how he is dealing with the possibility of the country obtaining nuclear weapons.

On energy issues generally, almost half the country gives Obama negative marks. Republican candidates have hammered the president on this, arguing that his policies have contributed to the rise in gasoline prices. Fifty percent of Americans see the Obama administration as having the power to do something about the cost of a gallon of gasoline; 45 percent say the administration has no such control.

This isn’t entirely surprising, of course. As I noted in a post last month, there is at least some correlation between the price of gas and Presidential job approval numbers although there’s not entirely convincing evidence of how closely those two numbers track each other or what they mean for an incumbent’s re-election chances. At the very least, of course, one can say that sustained high energy prices do tend to slow down economic growth and there is clearly a relationship between the state of the economy in general and the odds that a President will be re-elected. In the case of this year in particular, a sharp and sustained spike in energy prices has the potential to severely curtail the economic recovery and job growth, both of which would likely have a negative impact on the President in November.

There are, however, a number of caveats worth taking into account here.

First of all, we’ve been down this road before. It was just about a year ago that gasoline prices were also starting to spike, and some were predicting that the price of gas would hit $5.00 per gallon by summer. In that case, unlike now, the spike in gas prices was accompanied by a spike in oil prices. By April, polls were starting to show that the President’s job approval numbers were being impacted by energy prices  although other polls showed that Americans weren’t necessarily blaming the President for the rise in energy prices. Then, gas prices started to drop dramatically and the summer of $5.00 gas never arrived. Now there were several factors at play in 2011 that played a unique role in the ups and downs energy prices that year. Economic growth meant that worldwide demand for oil and gas was moving up, which was a major contributor to the increase in the prices of both commodities. Libya slipped into civil war in February and that nation’s oil was essentially pulled off the market for the rest of the year, thus decreasing supply while demand was increasing. On the other side of the ledger, the Japanese earthquake an tsumani tended to reduce demand for petroleum in Japan as the nation’s economy tended to slow down for several months at least. The point is that the fact that gas prices were going up in March and April of 2011 didn’t mean they would continue going up as projected. In fact they didn’t. It’s entirely possible that something similar will happen this year.

Second, there’s not a lot of evidence that gas prices have a significant impact on the outcome of Presidential election:

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 showedthat 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.”

There’s also a good possibility that rising energy prices won’t necessarily impact the economy all that severely, at least not as measured by the official numbers. However, Dave Schuler makes a very good point in this regard over at his own site today when he notes that voters don’t necessarily care about the state of the economy so much as they care about their own personal economic condition. Ronald Reagan didn’t win election in 1980 by asking “Is the economy better off than it was four years ago?” he won, in part, by asking a far more personal question. To the extent they contribute to an overall sense of uncertainty about the future, gas prices may very well play a role in how voters decide to handle the question of whether or not President Obama deserves a second term, but you could say the same thing about food prices (which have also risen sharply recently as a trip to the grocery store will tell you).

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Economics and Business, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Herb says:

    Gas Prices Hurting Obama In The Polls, But Will It Matter In November?

    Short answer? No. I’m sure there are a lot of voters in, say, Alabama or Mississippi who are going to vote against Obama anyway, be it for high gas prices or being a Muslim. I mean, for them, they don’t need a good reason, just a reason.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    As I said before…in my opinion high prices are already baked into the cake…they were higher under Bush…so this is nothing new.
    I assume that most people have adapted…as I did back then.
    Only the stupid vote is going to vote for Romney over Obama because of gas prices.

  3. David M says:

    @Hey Norm: Depends, if it crosses $5/gal and stays there through the election, I think it would make some impact on voting preferences.

  4. John D'Geek says:

    @Hey Norm: As much as I hate to do so, I have to agree with you Norm. I’m no Obama fan, but he hasn’t done anything Blatantly Stupid Enough(TM) to really affect gas prices at this point.

    Most of the people I know will be ignoring gas prices come November. Food prices, housing prices, unemployment … now that’s a different can of beans.

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, even on an inflation-adjusted basis we’ve never seen gas prices this high in February and March, so these are uncharted waters in which we’re sailing. I just can’t envision this problem having that much of an effect, however. At the margins, yes, but to flip the outcome of the election? Highly unlikely. Mmm, well, unlikely. At least IMHO.

    Blacks will be voting for Obama even if gas costs $50.00 per gallon. Wealthy liberals don’t care about high gas prices. If they absolutely had to they’d switch from their Lexus SUVs to their Lexus sedans. Government workers? Gas prices won’t matter. Fossilized relics generally don’t have to worry about gas prices. College and grad school-aged kids? No comprende.

    That all said, if the job market tanks in the late-summer and if gas prices stay highly elevated from now until Labor Day (the latter of which is quite likely, BTW, and the former is more likely than the putative conventional wisdom would hold), then Katy bar the door because in those events we very well could be looking at one term for Obama and in that event all hell will break loose in Loopy Liberal Land.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Blacks will be voting for Obama even if gas costs $50.00 per gallon. Wealthy liberals don’t care about high gas prices. If they absolutely had to they’d switch from their Lexus SUVs to their Lexus sedans. Government workers? Gas prices won’t matter. Fossilized relics generally don’t have to worry about gas prices. College and grad school-aged kids? No comprende.

    Oh, look. A list of types of people Tsar doesn’t like.

  7. JBJB says:

    Approval rating is one thing, but this poll says The One is now losing a head to head match up vs Romney and not doing to well with independents. This, after we have been told repeatedly by this blog and everyone else, was supposed to be a horrible week/month/year for republicans/Romney. How can it be that he is now ahead of Obama? Obama has been trying to do a victory lap on jobs for two months now and the media has all but claimed him unbeatable by default as all the repubs are supposedly lunatics. Something doesn’t square. One the one hand, we have people criticizing Romney because he cant put away Santorum or Newt but Obama should have easily already put all three away (if one is to believe the news media). I think the story here is really how very, very weak Obama is, despite the media telling us he is the greatest thing since fire.

  8. Herb says:

    @Rob in CT: Yeah, the ax-grinding is awfully convenient….

    I love this part, though:

    if the job market tanks in the late-summer and if gas prices stay highly elevated

    Here’s hoping that one day the Republican party returns to banking elections on the strength of their candidates rather than the weakness of the economy.

    What’s President Romney going to do about gas prices? Nothing.

  9. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @JBJB: Oh, my! You’re still using “The One?” Honey, that got retired along with “The Messiah” after the 2008 election. Everyone in the Kewl Kids Klub has been calling him Obambi or Odumbo since at least 2010. Get with the program.

  10. JBJB says:

    He will always be The One to me…

  11. dennis says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    You think you know what you’re talking about, but, really, you don’t.

  12. anjin-san says:

    He will always be The One to me…

    Thus sayeth The None.

  13. JBJB says:

    Not to mention, this poll suggests that Obama is doing worse now among women than before the whole contraception brouhaha. Another left wing media narrative down the tubes.

  14. Herb says:

    @JBJB: And not only that, but the poll suggests more people prefer Coke to Pepsi….

  15. “Drill, drill, drill” worked last time around (at least within the GOP). It will be interesting to see how well the answer “uh, we are [drilling]” penetrates that consciousness. One would hope that this penetrates as well:

    “We can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices — not when we consume 20 percent of the world’s oil,” – BHO

  16. anjin-san says:

    @ JBJB

    We already have a few fringe right boobs here – not taking any more applications at this time.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    He will always be The One to me…

    Well, maybe after November he can be The Two to you…

  18. Ben Wolf says:

    What actual evidence do we have motorists really give a damn about fuel prices? I can’t say I’ve noticed people driving more slowly or accelerating less quickly. In fact you can’t seem to drive down a goddamned highway without some soccer mom in an SUV pushing you at 75 mph. A lot of americans are spoiled brats who want low cost fuel without having to do anything for it.

  19. Drew says:

    Depends on how the media plays it. Under Bush it was all his fault along with his oil buddies and Halliburton.

    Now it’s played as aw, shucks, what’s a President to do?

  20. Lomax says:

    Here is the best energy policy: Many are choosing to invest in energy by investing in their own ingenuity. There are countless inventors, tinkerers, engineers, mechanics, and small business owners who are out there planning, developing, testing, and building energy saving, clean, non-polluting devices. This is where the future is, not with some government or corporate project. One energy breakthrough is the amazing Johnson motor/generator. This is now patented and was developed by an independent engineer. Many people are building their own. It is clean, safe, and generates more energy than it uses. It uses the energy of permanent magnets to do this. Many people are now using these to save 50-75% on residential electricity bills. There is a prototype being developed that will be tried in cars.

  21. @Drew:

    I remember saying “asian demand” and I remember the right saying “enviromentalists.”

    That was before the nation’s largest oil spill, of course. Damn environmentalists!

  22. @Ben Wolf:

    SUVs are cutting off my Prius again. Typical high gas price passive aggression.

    (OK, maybe she was just late for soccer.)

  23. KariQ says:

    Seems like an awful lot of assumptions are being made on the basis of a single poll in March, 6 months before we really ought to be actually taking any polling seriously. Really, all this poll (which is a statistical tie between Romney and Obama) says is what most of us have thought all along: the election could go either way, and it’s all going to depend on what happens to the economy over the next few months.

  24. bandit says:

    @Drew: Thats God’s truth – Obama is the no responsibility President – it’s always someone elses fault.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Lomax: Lomax….one can obviously see you have never studied any of the laws of thermodynamics. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch in physics.

  26. @bandit:

    The problem is that if you say the true causes, then they do not directly indict either president.

    And certainly at $4.33 per gallon (what I just paid) the argument that we should just drive higher-mpg cars make sense.

    The height of oblivious stupidity was that congressman complaining that Obama made cost of filling his Hummer too high. You’ve got to be a certain sort of cretin to buy a Hummer, and then blame someone else for the price of a tank of gas.