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Are gas prices the leading indicators they used to be?

Gas prices. (Image by Yassine Khalfalli via Unsplash.)

By Tom Baxter

There used to be a pretty reliable political rule of thumb that said the popularity of the party in the White House tracked contrarily with the up-and-down movement of the price of a gallon of gas. As prices go up, poll numbers go down, and vice versa. This year will test whether that old maxim still holds true.

Rising inflation, led by soaring gas prices, has corresponded closely with President Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers, just as we would expect. Gas prices hit a peak in early June and have been falling steadily since then. Experts on the subject think oil prices will fall further, driving down the price we pay at the pump. In a volatile world it’s dangerous to project how long that will last, but we aren’t that far from the mid-term elections and the downward trend continues.

Does that mean Biden will get a bounce upward as gas prices go down? What about Gov. Brian Kemp, whose suspension of the state gas tax kept Georgia in the hunt with South Carolina for the distinction of having the lowest gas prices in the nation? Is the old rule of thumb as reliable an indicator as it once was?

One reason this rule used to work so well is that it was a quick measure of sentiment in the political middle; the feelings of voters most likely to be swayed by whether they were doing well economically. The middle has shrunk since then, and that may affect how much impact a change in gas prices has on the polls.

It’s been pointed out time and again that this gas price-presidential popularity equivalence is based on the false assumption that presidents can do a lot about gas prices. This is certainly true, and voters seem to grasp the idea perfectly — so long as it works to the benefit of their party.

The relaxation of gas prices, combined with last week’s favorable jobs report, comes at a time when support for Biden has reached a dangerously low point. Among Democrats, a lot of dissatisfaction with Biden simply has to do with his age and a general feeling that he hasn’t been aggressive enough in pushing a Democratic agenda.

An improved economic outlook may not erase Biden’s problems with his fractious base. On the other hand, he has hit bottom — if this is the bottom — at a very propitious time if you look at the history of previous administrations. If he’s going to bounce back, he has the time to do it.

This administration has been criticized for not getting the upbeat news about the economy out more forcefully, but the United States right now is a tough audience for the good news morning team on the local affiliate, much less the White House. The tensions built up during the pandemic and the pandemonium of the last transfer of power have soured the public in ways that are hard to break through.

This particular gas-price episode — it’s kind of hard to call it a crisis — is taking place at a time when the manufacturing axis of the automobile economy is shifting toward electric cars and other alternatives to the combustion engine. Gas prices may go up or down in the short run, but in the long run, the question is going to be how much that matters. Inflation will always be a political problem, but it’s becoming more complicated to measure than what you can find from simply correlating poll numbers with gas prices.

When will rising gas prices be a crisis? When it’s not just lower-income voters who find them intolerable. When Americans stop hauling campers on cross-country vacations, when sales of big trucks and SUVs slow down and sales of hybrids and electrical vehicles spike up, then there will be a crisis that could impact national politics in a big way. Voters are still going to get mad, maybe furious, at the prices they’re paying. But until gas prices push the economy to that point, they have room, regrettably, to go higher.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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