Midterms tend to be a referendum on just how pissed off voters are at the sitting president. And if you believe the polls, Joe Biden’s approval ratings are stuck underwater, more or less, because voters are very, very grumpy about inflation, which is now running at forty-year highs.
Even as issues like the war in Ukraine, abortion, and crime have broken into the headlines this year, Americans have consistently told pollsters that their biggest policy concerns were the economy and the rising cost of living. According to a recent AP-NORC poll, 46 percent of Americans now describe their personal financial situation as “poor,” up from 32 percent of those who identified that way in March of 2021. Reasonably or not, they also trust Republicans more than Democrats to do something about it.
If Democrats get walloped next week, consensus says it will be thanks to this broad frustration with the economy. But what if the issue is actually a little narrower? What if this election is mostly going to come down to something as simple as the price of gas?
Does that sound a little glib? Yeah, obviously. Most of the time, election results can’t be explained by simple, monocausal narratives. At this very moment, you are reading a special package dedicated to explaining the many complex, intersecting currents that may well bring a red wave crashing down upon Capitol Hill in November.
But consider: Over the past two years, one of the easiest ways to predict Biden’s poll numbers has been to Google “gas prices.” When fuel has gotten more expensive, as it did through much of 2021 and especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the president’s numbers tended to sink; when fuel has gotten cheaper, as it did this summer, his numbers have rebounded.
When the political polling outfit Data for Progress first noticed this pattern last November, many political data geeks dismissed it as a likely coincidence. This August, the organization posted a cheeky follow-up entitled “Gas Rules Everything Around Me” (so, G.R.E.A.M.) showing that the correlation between pump prices and Biden’s numbers had stayed strong. Last month, Washington Post writer Philip Bump noticed that the cost of filling up didn’t just predict Biden’s poll numbers but, since the summer, also correlated with how Democrats fared on the generic congressional ballot. (Notably, many races began to tighten in the fall, right as gas prices ticked up after months of steady decline.)
There are, of course, other ways to explain this year’s swings in the polls. For instance, pump prices peaked in June, the same month the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dobbs abolishing the constitutional right to an abortion—an event that temporarily seemed to sour voters on Republicans and give Democrats a tail wind. Or maybe all the recent stock market carnage and recession talk brought about by the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes are hurting Democrats’ numbers.
But there’s a reason Republicans have blanketed America’s gas pumps with those “Joe
Biden Did This” stickers. The price of fuel has always played an outsize role in U.S. politics, especially presidential approval numbers. Gasoline is also the only product for which the price is advertised alongside every single highway in America, making it a daily, real-world reminder about the inflation problem that’s dominated headlines, and possibly the main barometer many voters are using to judge its severity. In June, when average prices hit an all-time high of $4.96 a gallon and topped $6 in California, 67 percent of Americans told Gallup that filling up their car had become a “financial hardship.”
The fact that Americans tend to vote their Exxon receipt is the sort of thing that drives policy nerds a bit crazy. Gas prices depend mostly on the cost of oil, which trades on a global commodity market that presidents can’t do much to control. It swings up and down wildly thanks to freak geopolitical events, like when a Russian dictator decides to start a land war in Europe. Bizarre supply chain disruptions, like the unexpected fire that shut down a major Midwest refinery this summer, also play a role. That kind of random, short-lived volatility is a big part of why economists don’t consider energy costs part of what’s called “core inflation,” which they’d argue depends more on macroeconomic policy. If you’re looking for a single number that captures the success of a president’s economic stewardship or the underlying trend in the Consumer Price Index, gas prices are actually a pretty poor one.
Biden, for his part, has done much more than most presidents to try and tamp down gas prices, releasing historic quantities of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve while trying to encourage more domestic production by promising to buy crude back later at a profitable price. Sure, his efforts to get the Saudis to maintain its oil production didn’t go so well. But if any POTUS in recent memory deserves credit for watching out for America’s hard-pressed motorists, it’s probably ol’ Stingray Joe. Republicans, meanwhile, haven’t proposed a viable plan for bringing prices down themselves. Will it matter? Maybe not! Just one more reason why I can’t wait until everybody’s driving an electric car.