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Price of Gas Matters to Voters, but Doesn't Seem to Sway Votes

Stacy Hawks is angry that the rising price of gasoline is squeezing the profits of her father’s produce company and draining the wallets of friends who drive trucks. She is angry that the government has not acted to reverse the trend.

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But Ms. Hawks, 26, a North Carolina resident who describes herself as very conservative, said she does not expect the price of gas to influence her vote in November.

“What I look for in a candidate is whether or not they have experience, values, morals,” said Ms. Hawks. “Mostly, I want someone that I trust as a leader.”

There may be no number stamped more frequently on the American landscape than the price of gas. And as the average price has climbed toward $4 a gallon nationwide, it has generated abundant chatter about the threat to the economic recovery, and to incumbent politicians.

Republicans have seized on the issue to attack President Obama’s management of the economy. The president has responded with speeches defending his energy policies, including increased domestic oil production.

But there is surprisingly little evidence that gas prices deserve an outsize reputation for economic and political influence.

Studies suggest that most voters agree with Ms. Hawks: they are angry about gas prices, but other factors, like the economy and the personal qualities of candidates, ultimately determine their votes.

Gas prices influence voters indirectly, because rising prices can slow the pace of growth. But the influence is modest, because spending on oil and its derivatives makes up only a small part of the nation’s economic activity. Gas purchases account for less than 4 percent ofhousehold spending. Prices would need to increase by at least 28 percent to lift that share by a single percentage point. So far this year, they have jumped by 15 percent.

“Presidential elections are based on evaluations of presidential performance and on the performance of the economy. You can’t reduce that to one small issue,” said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University. “Are gas prices part of the equation that people think about? They probably are, but only a small piece.”

Rising gas prices also make Americans less confident in the nation’s economic prospects and less approving of political leaders, according to public opinion surveys. But these, too, are small effects. One study by a political scientist estimated that the impact of changes in unemployment was 27 times greater than the impact of equivalent changes in gas prices.

In part, the difference is that Americans are divided as to whether politicians should be held responsible.

Donald J. Wheeler, a ball bearing tester from Springfield, Ohio, said people blamed the president because it was the easiest thing to do. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s the companies that are gouging people.”

Brian Gregory, who delivers auto parts in northern Virginia, spends about $60 most weekdays filling his station wagon. He said that he blamed Mr. Obama for failing to control prices and that the issue was a major reason he planned to vote “either for a Republican or not at all.”

“I don’t understand health care as well as I should,” he said. “Housing, I’m kind of vague on that. But this I can definitely understand.”

More Spent on Gas Than Any Other Good

Gas prices exert an unrivaled hold on the public imagination. Americans spend more on gas than on almost any other single good, and the exact amount is hard to miss as the numbers spin by on the pump. It hurts to watch, but there is also little choice. People can substitute chicken for steak, but they still need to drive the same distance to work.

CNG Station in Santa Monica
CNBC
CNG Station in Santa Monica

When prices rise, people wait to buy cars; they travel less; they buy fewer lottery tickets and spend less on child care, according to a study by Paul Edelstein and Lutz Kilian, economics professors at the University of Michigan.

Michael Wills has stopped driving weekly from his home in Fairfax, Va., to his father’s home in North Beach, Md., a distance of 50 miles. Mr. Wills, 56, said he had seen his father only a few times in recent months.

Amy Rivera, 24, of Orlando, said she shorted her electric bill last month to make sure she had enough money for gas.

And Pat Rosenbeck, 57, a restaurant owner from Franklin, Ohio, said the flow of customers had slowed as gas climbed above $3 a gallon.

The impact on happiness is even larger than the changes in spending, according to a 2010 study by researchers at the Brookings Institution, in part because people do not like uncertainty, and they do not know how high prices will climb.

Republican primary voters overwhelmingly cite gas prices as an important issue. But voters’ views of a president are influenced by a wide range of issues.

Rising gas prices sometimes track declines in presidential approval ratings. Gallup reported that President George W. Bush’s ratings fell to 48 percent at the end of October 2004, just before Election Day, from 60 percent in January. The price of a gallon of regular gas climbed 27 percent over the same period.

But gas prices often move out of sync with approval ratings, too. President Bill Clinton’s ratings rose to 54 percent just before Election Day from 42 percent in early January 1996, even as the price of gas climbed 13 percent.

Since 1976, a 30-cent increase in gas prices over a three-month period has corresponded to a reduction of two percentage points in a president’s approval rating if other economic factors are held constant, according to an analysis by John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University.

That kind of movement has not been sufficient to affect the outcome of a presidential election, he said. “I think of the information flow that takes place during a presidential campaign as a big, wide Mississippi River, and gas prices are a tributary that flows into that river,” Professor Sides said. “It’s hard for one number, even if it’s staring you in the face while you’re pumping gas, to burn through all the other information that’s out there about the economy and the candidate.”

A key implication, however, is that gas prices could make a difference if the movements were large enough and the race was close enough.

A 2011 study of the impact of economic conditions on regional voting patterns found that the spike in gas prices in the summer of 2008 did give a small boost to Mr. Obama. Independent voters in areas where prices climbed highest reported a significantly more negative view of the health of the economy and were less likely to vote for incumbents.

James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland who was a co-author of the study, said the increased volatility of gas prices was raising its importance in elections. “It may well be that this is an emerging factor that we’ll have to consider,” he said. “But if I can rely on that old social sciences copout, we need more evidence.”

Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Franklin and Springfield, Ohio.

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