Distress over gas prices could hardly come at a worse time for Republicans. Voters usually blame a poor economy on the party that controls the presidency, and there are few more potent reminders of hard economic times than the high cost of fuel at the pump. On Sunday, for the first time ever, AAA found that the national average cost of gasoline rose to $4 a gallon.
“Of all the products that we buy, there is none in which the price is so obvious and so in our face,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential analyst at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not how often we buy gas — it’s how often we pass a gas station. It has a built-in irritant.”
Thus far, it’s McCain who has most suffered from that irritation. On an issue that three in four registered voters believe will be “very important” in making their “decision about who to vote for this fall” — a greater portion of voters than those who cite terrorism, moral values or the war in Iraq — Pew shows Republicans lagging Democrats by 15 percentage points on who will give “greater priority” to energy. While McCain’s bid for the presidency is likely dependent on his ability to outperform the unpopular Republican brand, the same poll shows him trailing the GOP on the issue. He trails Obama by an even larger margin, 18 percentage points, among voters asked which candidate would better “deal” with the energy issue.
“Gasoline prices hurt Carter much more than the Iran hostage crisis,” said Paul Light, author of “A Government Ill Executed” and a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.
Light conducted a poll in March that found concern about gasoline prices had risen almost as dramatically as the prices themselves, and were now voters' second biggest concern.
“Among the true independents this is just the kind of issue that cuts hard,” he said. Independents have been particularly turned off by McCain’s gas tax holiday proposal — a May Quinnipiac poll found independent voters were more likely to disapprove than approve of his gas tax holiday plan by 18 percentage points, a gap more than twice that of party-registered voters.
It’s not just independents who are concerned, though. A record 94 percent of Americans believe that the “energy situation” is “very serious” or “fairly serious,” according to the latest polling by Gallup this March. The previous high was 85 percent in February of 1979, shortly before the price of crude oil reached a then-record high of $103 per barrel in 2008 dollars in April 1980 — a record that held until earlier this year.
While there are no gas lines today, Americans are again curtailing their lifestyles in response to the high prices. A recent report by the Federal Highway Administration showed that traffic for the month of March fell for the first time since 1979. Several U.S. airlines have recently begun eliminating thousands of jobs, grounding aircraft and charging for all checked baggage, all to cope with fuel costs.
Gas prices have also pushed the Big Three automakers to slow the manufacture of gas guzzling sport utility vehicles and trucks. General Motors announced last week that it may discontinue its Hummer brand.
So far, proposals to deal wit the problem have been limited. McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to gain much traction for their proposed federal gas tax holiday, which would have removed the 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gas tax for the summer. Obama opposed the idea, calling the gas tax holiday political pandering — a position that put him in line with most economists.
Four years ago, when gas prices also surfaced as a campaign issue, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called for President Bush to “divert the raw crude oil” from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the market in order to offer temporary relief for U.S. consumers. President Bush rebuffed Kerry, arguing that the reserves were for emergencies that affect supply. Bush did, however, release and sell off 11 million barrels of oil after Hurricane Katrina.
At the time, the average gas price at the pump was about $2 a gallon. The national average is roughly double that today.
“It’s clearly a very big issue,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain’s chief policy adviser. “It is one piece of an economy that is really weighing heavily on voters' minds.”
Neither campaign has proposed tapping the reserves. Eakin said the McCain campaign would, in coming months, highlight McCain’s opposition to “handouts” for oil companies.
At a fundraiser on Monday, McCain restated his support for the gas tax holiday, though he added that he does not "pretend that it's an answer to our energy problems."
Obama also weighed in on the gas price debate Monday, saying that he would impose a windfall profits tax on U.S. oil companies. Obama added that McCain’s support for Bush’s tax cuts amounts to support for subsidies for oil companies.
A senior adviser to Obama reiterated that the Illinois senator will continue to oppose the gas tax holiday.