Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and disruptions in and sanctions on Russian oil, have led to a major rise in oil prices.
In Chicago, I’ve seen gas selling for north of $5 a gallon. Some parts of California are reporting gas over $5.50. Last week, average gas prices nationwide hit $4.196 per gallon, which is the highest recorded price in history, breaking the previous record of $4.165 from July 2008.
Democrats have watched rising prices with some concern, and Republicans have been rubbing their hands. Conventional wisdom (channeled by Politico, as one example) is that high inflation, and especially high prices at the pump, harm the incumbent party.
The actual evidence is mixed, though.
Especially six months from the next election.
One study from 1976 to 2007 found a 10-cent increase in gas prices led to a .60 percentage point fall in approval rating.
However, 538 points out that foreign oil shocks, such as that caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, often aren’t blamed on the president, and may even be associated with presidential approval boosts.
In line with that, high gas prices currently are not harming Biden.
On the contrary, the latest spike in oil coincides with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and sanctions on Russian oil. That coincides with a rise, not a fall, in Biden’s approval.
Since late February, when Russia invaded, Biden’s numbers have gone from a low of 40.4 percent approval to close to 43 percent in mid-March, according to 538’s poll aggregator.
The popularity of support for Ukraine seems to outweigh any anger at the pump, at least for now.
Would Biden be doing better if gas prices were lower?
That’s hard to answer. In fact, it’s always difficult to separate oil spikes from other factors affecting election outcomes.
In a 2012 interview on NPR, Jim Tankersley, economic correspondent for the National Journal, explained that gas prices may harm the president if they reflect, or add to, a general economic slowdown.
“If gasoline prices spike, then that can have a real effect on economic growth and if growth slows down, that can really impede a president's path to reelection,” Tankersley said.
Tankersley pointed to the 1980 election as a complicated example.
Gas prices were up in 1980 in large part because of the Iranian hostage crisis, which most Americans believed Jimmy Carter mishandled.
The US was also experiencing a serious economic slowdown and a price spike — dubbed stagflation.
GOP candidate Ronald Reagan famously won a sweeping victory in 1980. Gas prices may have been a factor. But only because they seemed part of a wider presidential failure, diplomatically and economically.
Another example is the 2008 election.
Rising gas prices were a major issue, but not the deciding factor.
Andrew Prokop at Vox noted that gas prices spiked in the first half of 2008, hitting a peak in June 30 percent higher than the January level.
A Pew poll in June of that year found gas prices were the number one economic problem Americans were hearing about in the news.
John McCain promised a federal gas tax holiday. Barack Obama proposed a windfall profit tax on oil companies. And then in September, the 2008 financial crisis hit, the Great Recession started and gas prices cratered along with the economic slowdown.
The timing here is important.
Voters’ memories are short. Politics can be volatile—especially now, as we deal with an active international conflict and ongoing pandemic. In 2008, the situation between June and November changed radically.
Similarly, while gas prices are high now, we don’t know what they will look like in six months. Biden has pointed out that oil prices are already falling (though prices at the pump have been slow to follow.)
Gas prices may not have a strong effect on elections in November. But high prices at the pump still cause real harm. A 2012 study by the Brookings Institution found most low-to-moderate income households own cars. Rising gas prices cause them serious pain.
“Every dollar increase, holding the number of miles driven constant, would cost these moderate- to lower-income households an extra $530 per year,” the report said. “For a family with an annual income of $20,000, this is an additional 2.7 percent of their total income.”
Congress has tools to moderate the worst effects of price increases on low-income families. The most obvious is the Child Tax Credit.
As I’ve discussed here in the Editorial Board before, the Child Tax Credit, direct payments to low-income families with children, pulled millions out of poverty when it was put in place in 2021.
When it lapsed due to opposition from Republicans and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, those millions of kids fell back into poverty.
Rising gas prices create another major barrier for families already struggling with the loss of federal assistance. If we want to reduce hardship and mitigate the effect of inflation on those most at risk, we should immediately renew the Child Tax Credit.
Russia’s invasion has also demonstrated once again how vulnerable an oil-dependent world is to instability in oil-producing regions, and to recklessness on the part of oil-producing countries.
An obvious response would be to increase investments in renewables. Europe is pushing short-term conservation efforts, like lowered thermostats, and more investment in nuclear, solar and biofuels.
The US has, unfortunately, been more tentative. Biden has called for more renewables. But the loudest Democratic messaging has called for domestic oil and gas companies to ramp up production.
Given the unpopularity of the Russian invasion and the concern with gas prices, this seems like as good an opportunity as Democrats are ever going to get to push an anti-Putin renewable energy package through Congress. At the very least, Democrats could force Republicans to acknowledge that voting against the climate is also a vote for authoritarian imperialists like Putin.
Thinking of gas prices primarily through the lens of the next election is misleading and unhelpful. We don’t know what gas prices will be like in November, or whether they will be a major issue.
But we do know high gas prices are a political reality now.
Democrats should address the harms caused by rising costs and oil dependence not to win the next vote. We should address them because low-income families need help, and because, for numerous reasons, we need to move away from carbon-based fuels.