Gas Prices Are Falling, Just In Time For Election Season [Op-Ed]

COMMENTARY | Gas prices are on the decline, and though it’s a commonly propagated myth that the President of the United States has some kind of magical control over what we spend at the pump, most experts agree that the suit sitting in the White House has little, if anything, to do with it.

Still, this doesn’t stop the issue from popping up during election season, and the 2012 election is no exception. With energy tacked down as a peripheral, yet important, issue, President Obama has found himself defending his record on the issue while his GOP opponent Mitt Romney has attacked him for high gas prices.

Fact checkers have earnestly pointed out that high gas prices aren’t President Obama’s fault, just like they weren’t Bush’s fault, or Clinton’s fault, or any previous president’s fault, really. Still, the fact that gas prices have dropped so close to Election Day rings suspicious, no?

The answer is “no,” as a matter of fact. But the claim needs some unpacking.

Why candidates challenge incumbent presidents on gas prices is a mystery, when it clearly doesn’t have an effect on voters. In 1992, gas prices were at their lowest in decades, but that didn’t stop voters from favoring Bill Clinton over a second term for George H.W. Bush. Then in 2004, when gas prices were at their highest in decades, George W. Bush was re-elected. Sure, it was close, but not as close as the 2000 bid that earned Bush the Younger his first term.

Claims by politicians that gas prices rise and fall due to oil company greed are also misleading. The common claim on the Left that Big Oil is making a killing, even in a recessed economy, is a manipulative one. In absolute terms, the claim is true, but in relative terms, Big Oil profits are modest.

On the Right, the claim that domestic drilling would solve all of our oil woes is a tricky point as well: US exports of gasoline have actually tripled in the past year. Domestic drilling may improve our GDP, especially if exports go up, but it won’t help your wallet here at home.

Some project that gas prices will continue to fall through the end of this year. But the drop in the global price of oil and concerns about global economic weakness are helping that trend, not necessarily politics. Light sweet crude has fallen to $86 a barrel, a 15 percent drop in recent weeks. The Midwest will likely see the greatest drop in gas prices, with one projection putting it below $3 a gallon.

Suspicious timing?

Bloomberg says that the drop in gas prices cripples GOP opponent Mitt Romney’s talking point on energy that we’re paying too much for gas under Obama’s administration. While that may be true, why the talking point came up at all is a mystery. It’s a moot point. With how little it has seemingly affected election years past, one wonders why it’s continually brought up at all.

If you want an in-depth look at President Obama’s attempts to slow the increase of gas prices, including year-to-year data from the Energy Information Administration, you can go here, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

I cast serious doubt on any claim that a drop in gas prices is somehow tied to President Obama’s re-election bid, or that there is any potential manipulation on his part to secure votes. Just like the Labor Statistic showing 7.8% unemployment, it’s something that the president just can’t touch.

Secondly, you could argue that POTUS-power is tied to gas prices enough that the talking points on both sides succeed in fooling us into believing this is true. But, historically speaking, it doesn’t matter during elections as much as the politicians seem to think it does. Mitt Romney may see high gas prices as an easy talking point to use against President Obama, and the president may feel as though “record profits” at Big Oil fit his agenda for alternative energy investigation, or even taxation of the rich, but it’s a perspective without voter impact. Mitt Romney didn’t get a boost with his high gas prices claim, and the president’s second term won’t be held hostage on that point alone.

The key is consumer confidence in the economy. Gas prices, though arguably the most visible impact and a meaningful concern to voters, are a symptom of a greater concern, not the source. In November, voters will either grant Mitt Romney a chance or continue to put their faith in President Obama based on the outlook of the American economy, of which gas prices play a part, but a relatively insignificant one.

In light of the historical voting record regarding gas prices and how elections tend to go, this year’s low gas prices are not only historically predictable, they amount to mere coincidence. What’s more, undecided voters aren’t suddenly going to decide to vote “Obama/Biden” based on this issue alone. Like I said above, it’s a moot issue.

But I am only one man. Tell me what you think: Will the recent and continuing drop in gas prices affect your vote this November? Sound off in the comments below.