Will High Gas Prices Hurt Obama's Reelection Chances?

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Gas Prices, February 2012

(New York, NY -- Stephen Reader, It's a Free Country.org) With gas prices on the rise—over $5/gallon in some places—Republican presidential candidates hammered the Obama administration this week for over-regulating domestic energy production.

In a new 30-minute (yes, minute) Super Tuesday super-ad, Newt Gingrich blamed the President's policies for the recent spike in gas prices, and complained that reliance on Middle East oil has left American markets open to shudders in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"This is the most expensive gas on average we've ever had," Gingrich opined.

We're not sure where the former Speaker is getting his numbers. The Daily Fuel Gauge Report from AAA shows the highest recorded average as $4.114/gallon, which was in the summer of 2008. The current national average is almost 50 cents less at $3.64/gallon.

Still, such a high number is not good news for Obama. Whether or not rising gas prices are the President's fault, incumbent parties tend to fare poorly in elections when consumers feel like they're paying an arm and a leg at the pump.

But that doesn't mean incumbent parties fare poorly because of high gas prices, per se. Over at the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver has found that "higher gas prices mean a poorer performance for the incumbent party," but the argument that there's a direct cause-effect relationship between the two was "fairly weak statistically."

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...if the economy is growing at 4 or 5 percent in 2012, unemployment has declined significantly, and inflation remains tame, gas prices are unlikely to have much effect on Mr. Obama's prospects.

Silver wrote these words about a year ago. Today, we know that the economy isn't growing as much as 4 or 5 percent (at least not yet); while unemployment may be declining, most Americans probably wouldn't call the changes "significant."

But Obama can take some comfort in the fact that at least the picture doesn't seem to be getting worse. The economy is still growing: Nate Silver points out that in 1980, when Jimmy Carter lost re-election, gas was at an inflation-adjusted $3.37/gallon and GDP was shrinking at a rate of 3.7 percent. In 2008, when John McCain failed to keep Republican control of the White House and gas was $3.81/gallon, GDP was shrinking at a rate of 2.3 percent.

Obama also has some ammunition against the kind of charges leveled by Newt. Read the rest of the post here.