The Politics of Gasoline Prices: Keep Your Powder Dry

Posted April 16, 2004 at 2:56pm

Pardon me if I don’t get too excited about the impact of climbing gasoline prices on the 2004 elections. At least not yet.

[IMGCAP(1)]I owe my serenity to Roll Call reporter Paul Kane, whose memory always proves better than my own. “Didn’t gasoline prices become an issue in the last presidential race, and in the one before that?” he asked me recently.

I did some checking, and he was right. The issue spiked, along with prices, in both 1996 and 2000.

This year, both journalists and presidential campaigns reacted to higher gasoline prices at the pump as if the issue would determine who would win in November.

One CNN reporter said in a report that aired March 30 that the rising price of gasoline “could be one of the biggest pocketbook issues of the presidential campaign.”

“With gas prices approaching record highs, the price at the pump has become a driving issue in Campaign 2004,” echoed a CBS TV network anchor, trying to be clever.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) quickly criticized the Bush administration for not pressing the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to produce more oil. The president’s campaign responded by criticizing Kerry for allegedly supporting a stiff hike in the gas tax, a charge that Kerry disputed.

Oh, how quickly we forget.

Less than four years ago, gas prices also spiked, particularly in the Midwest. Newspapers ran a flurry of stories about the rising prices and their effect on the Al Gore-George W. Bush contest.

“Democratic officials said that new polling shows that voters believe the price of gasoline is far and away the No. 1 problem in the country,” wrote The New York Times on June 22.

Then-President Bill Clinton was “facing a political firestorm over the issue,” wrote two other Times reporters the next day.

Four years earlier, rising gas prices also surfaced as a political issue.

An April 27, 1996, New York Times article titled “Drivers Fume as Gas Prices Rise Sharply,” noted that “prices on the crude oil spot market are hitting levels not seen since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.” Experts were predicting even higher prices ahead.

And the issue had enough salience to warrant a May 1 New York Times editorial, “Gas Prices, Gas Politics.” It noted, “Gasoline prices have indeed soared above the usual spring run-up, boosting the national average for a gallon of regular about 10 percent above a year ago.”

Not surprisingly, both times politicians tried to use the issue.

In 2000, Gore and his Democratic allies sought to use the issue against the Bush- Cheney ticket, arguing that both Republicans had close ties to the oil and gas industry, which Democrats accused of “price gouging” and, in the case of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), “outright thievery.”

“People believe, and rightly so, that the oil companies are in large part responsible for the price of gasoline. They don’t believe that the government is responsible for the price of gas. So what average people are deciding is, ‘Who do I want in the government when gas prices skyrocket?’ We think the answer is clear: Vice President Gore is on their side, Governor Bush isn’t,” said Mark Fabiani, a Gore campaign spokesman.

In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole sought to use higher gas prices to argue for a repeal of a 4.3 cents per gallon tax increase that Democrats had enacted three years earlier. And President Clinton was worried enough about the issue that in late April he ordered the selling of 12 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Whatever the short-term impact of the rising gasoline prices, it’s difficult to make the case that the price spike had a major impact on the outcome of either the 1996 or the 2000 presidential race. Prices ultimately edged back down, and voters turned their attention to other things.

In 1996, Clinton was re-elected easily. Four years later, Gore lost his bid, but it was his debate performances, positions on gun control and the environment, and connection to Bill Clinton that cost him the White House, not high gasoline prices in June.

It is possible, of course, that prices will continue to rise this year, resulting in an angry electorate that blames the incumbent president for economic hardship and votes to send him back to Texas. Of course, it is also possible — indeed likely — that prices will fall and the electorate, the media and the candidates will move on.

For now, thanks to Paul Kane, I think I’ll just wait and see what gasoline prices do. For if recent history is any guide, it is more likely that other factors, including the situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism and jobs, will determine who wins in November.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report .