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Gas Prices: The Dog that Didn’t Bark?

Professor John Sides

John Sides

November 8, 2012
Back in March, amidst a steep increase in the price of gasoline, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza declared, “It’s the gas prices, stupid”—a take-off on James Carville’s famous “it’s the economy, stupid” mantra from the 1992 presidential campaign.  They suggested that gas prices would likely be a “critical factor” that would help voters make up their minds in 2012.

Looking back on Election Day, it now appears that gas prices weren’t that critical after all.  As I argued in March, gas prices tend to have small effects on how people evaluate the economy and the incumbent president.  On balance, other economic indicators are more powerful—like inflation and unemployment.  Moreover, gas prices appear to have had little effect on presidential election outcomes, once other economic variables are taken into account.  The upshot: for gas prices to matter by themselves, there would need to be a large spike in gas prices that was not accompanied by other negative trends in the economy.

In fact, what has happened in recent months is a spike in gas prices that was accompanied by positive trends in the economy—in particular, a declining unemployment rate.  And since unemployment is a more powerful predictor of approval ratings, it’s not surprising that Obama’s approval rating has increased modestly even as gas prices spiked.

Obama was also helped because the worst spike in gas prices—in California—occurred in a state he safely won, and for idiosyncratic reasons that did not affect many other states, including battleground states, in the same way.  It’s probably also helpful to Obama that gas prices have declined over the past two weeks and that the fallout from Hurricane Sandy may make them decline more.

Gas prices are and will remain a very visible indicator of the country’s economic health, but in politics they are most often a marginal factor rather than, to use this year’s cliché, a “game-changer.”

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. He is an author of the forthcoming book on the 2012 election, The GambleHe is also a co-founder of and contributor to The Monkey Cage, a blog about political science and politics.


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