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Do voters really care about gas prices?

Susan Zarchen fills her vehicle up with gas in a county where some grades of gasoline have already surpassed the $4 mark on Feb. 21, 2012 in Miami, Fla.

Kai Ryssdal: A gallon of gas in Montgomery, Ala., costs about $3.50 a gallon today. A little bit cheaper in Jackson, Miss.

But in an election where the last time we checked the economy was still everything, pennies matter. How people feel about those extra pennies they're spending at the pump matters even more.

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of Gallup. He's here every week with us for a partnership called Attitude Check, what Americans really think. Frank, good to talk to you again.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Ryssdal: So other than the fact that Americans want lower gas prices, what do we know about how it affects how they're going to vote? Is that something we take into the polls with us?

Newport: You know, it certainly can be, but unlike some of the conventional wisdom, Kai, that's been developing here in recent days, we don't see so far that the price of gasoline is this gigantic concern on the part of Americans and voters out there. One of the reasons I say that is we ask every month: What's the most important problem facing the country? And this month, 7 percent mentioned gas prices; overwhelmingly, people are much more likely to say the economy and unemployment. And that 7 percent is way down from where it's been -- it was 25 percent in June of 2008.

Ryssdal: Well, but riddle me this, though: If we're paying, I don't know national average $4.25 -- the national average now is like $3.80 -- but if it goes up 50 cents, do you have a barometer, is there some bar that will be passed and then people are going to change their minds?

Newport: We ask Americans that. We actually said: What is the price-point at which -- and this is the way we phrased it -- your lifestyle will be significantly changed or you'll have to significantly stop spending in other areas? And on average, it was $5.30.

Ryssdal: Wow!

Newport: Not $4.50 or $4.30, but $5.30. Now of course, a lot of Americans with lower income said a lower number than that, but that's the median, and then the average is right above $5.00.

Ryssdal: So if I'm running Exxon today, I'm going to raise prices tomorrow, right?

Newport: Yeah, you can push prices right up to $5.29, how's that? It won't tip over to that point. Looks like you're going to have to have a $5 on that gas sign as you drive down the road before it really begins to affect your consumer behavior.

Ryssdal: That's kind of amazing. Back to the politics of this thing, though, what you're hearing out on the campaign stump from Republicans and a bit from the president yesterday morning is all about energy independence and increasing supply. What do voters think about, you know, drilling more and all the rest of that?

Newport: Well, when it comes to drill, drill, drill, Americans prefer the alternative, and that's of course what Obama knows. Every March, we update some indicators and we just finished updating right now. Would you think the best way to handle the energy situation is to emphasize more production, or to emphasize conservation or to emphasize alternative energy sources? And both of the latter went out. In other words, by about 51 percent to 40 percent, Americans say conservation rather than more production, and by even higher than that, 59 percent to 34 percent Americans say emphasize alternative energy rather than more production. So the Republican emphasis on drilling, drilling, drilling doesn't comport well with the American attitude at this point.

Ryssdal: The politics of energy policy in the 2012 election, I guess. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief at Gallup, the segment we do with them every week is called Attitude Check. Frank, thanks a lot.

Newport: You bet.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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Given that oil companies (which are corporations which we now know are also people) would rather see a friendly Republican president, what's to keep them from giving an "in-kind" donation of raising gas prices to the point where it becomes an artificial campaign issue? The Supreme Court certainly won't stop them.

I think part of the answer is that voters do care about gas prices but, there are differences of opinion about what politicians can or should do about them. So, the voter response to higher prices is going to be divided.

For example, I''m sure a lot of voters out there probably think that higher gas mileage, electric cars, conservation and mass transit are solutions to gas prices, while others are going with "drill baby drill".

Personally, I lean toward pushing more efficient cars, like the kind that can plug in and save gas on your daily commute. If I can use half as much gas and use some electricity for $1.20/gallon, then I won't be bothered as much if gas goes up to $6.

Now, someone who uses a truck every day for work that gets 12 mpg is doing to have a very different opinion than me. So we're probably going to vote differently and you get some vote cancellation effect. At least that's my theory, anyway.

when you're unemployed, the breaking point certainly isn't $5.30 or $5.29... it's more like $0.01, especially if you have to drive to interviews... even in a honda civic!

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