Republicans Have a Built-in Advantage When Gas Prices Rise

The Republican slogan that keeps on keeping on. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s generally well understood that U.S. voters care a lot about gasoline prices. (You might even say they care to an irrational degree if you’ve seen someone drive miles out of their way to get gas for a penny cheaper per gallon.) It’s also pretty clear that a gas-price spike is among the many economic factors that can hurt the popularity of incumbent presidents, as pump prices often become a proxy for inflation concerns generally. So stemming gasoline-price increases is a significant challenge for Joe Biden and his party going into the 2022 midterms, which is only made more difficult by the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This is a particularly difficult problem for Democrats, as the party generally has less credibility on gas prices than the GOP, whose constant “solution” is simply to boost domestic petroleum production. From Sarah Palin to Lauren Boebert, Republicans have branded “Drill, baby, drill” as a counter to Democratic efforts to reduce reliance on petroleum as part of a strategy for addressing climate change (a challenge Republicans tend to reject as imaginary or less important than cheap fuel and energy-industry profits and jobs). And while consistent majorities of voters express what might be described as theoretical support for climate-change activism, tolerance for high gasoline prices as a by-product of such activism is at best limited. The simplicity of Republican supply-side panaceas for pain at the pump contrasts favorably with the complex and sometimes contradictory-sounding Democratic messages favoring less carbon in the atmosphere but also no pain for regular consumers.

Vox’s Andrew Prokop reminds us that the last time gas prices appeared to go wild, Republicans went on the offensive on this issue even though they controlled the federal government and were thus responsible for the problem:

Gas prices soared in the first several months of 2008 — at their peak in June, they were 30 percent higher than they were in January of that year. (The national average price rose to $4.16 a gallon in that span, equivalent to $5.48 in inflation-adjusted dollars.)

“When asked in an open-ended format to name the economic or financial problem they have been hearing the most about in the news lately, fully 72% of Americans point to gas and oil prices,” the Pew Research Center wrote in June 2008. “No other issue comes close. The housing and mortgage crisis is a distant second.” 

That’s right — the problems that metastasized into the Great Recession bugged voters less than petroleum prices. And Republicans placed Democratic challenger Barack Obama on the defensive on the issue until the whole economy cratered (which also pushed gasoline prices down):

[Republicans] soon coalesced around the message that what Americans needed was more oil — and, specifically, to lift the federal ban on offshore oil drilling (“drill, baby, drill,” as the eventual slogan went). This was awkward for Democrats. Many in the party hated the idea due to potential environmental damage, and others pointed out it would be years before new drilling had even the slightest possible effect on prices. But it polled extraordinary well, getting 73 percent support.

When more general economic concerns prevail, or when gas prices are stable or falling, a majority of voters appear open to Democratic economic messages. But whenever concerns about the cost of fuel become central to the political discourse, Republicans are ready to capitalize on them with their time-tested “Drill, baby, drill” mantra. Democrats perpetually struggle to reconcile economic policies that aim to reduce the cost of living for lower- and middle-class Americans with environmental policies dependent on convincing these same Americans to change their habits — and their means of transportation.

As New York’s Eric Levitz argues, there could yet be policies Biden and Democrats might deploy that will address the short-term gasoline-price spike while maintaining long-term climate-change objectives. But that will require threading a needle skillfully in an uncertain economic world with all sorts of unpredictable developments. Meanwhile, Republicans can pound away at their easy-to-understand demand for higher domestic petroleum production and have a realistic expectation that swing voters will look nervously at the posted gasoline prices and nod in agreement.

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Republicans Have a Built-in Advantage When Gas Prices Rise