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What happened the last time high gas prices dominated US politics

High gas prices are perilous, but not necessarily fatal, for Biden and Democrats.

Three politicians sitting in a row at a table in front of multiple flags.
In July 2008, President George W. Bush, flanked by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (left) and Vice President Cheney, meets with members of his economic team to lessen the impact of high gasoline prices.
Ron Sachs/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Soaring gas prices, like inflation generally, will likely hurt President Biden’s popularity and Democrats’ political prospects. But there’s some debate over just how threatening the price increase will be, and whether there is a clear connection between gas prices and election outcomes.

Prices are rising across the country. According to US Energy Information Administration data, the average price for a retail gallon of gasoline has risen by about 25 percent in the past two months, and by about 70 percent since President Biden took office. Biden’s decision to block US imports of Russian oil may well send prices even higher, as he acknowledged last week. (The future is uncertain, though — oil prices have fallen back down somewhat in recent days.)

The effects of the broader trend have only begun to ripple through the American political system, and the potential consequences for Biden aren’t clear: Vladimir Putin bears primary responsibility for the most recent shock, and Biden’s approval rating has actually risen by about 2 percentage points in recent weeks to around 43 percent, per FiveThirtyEight’s tracker, though that could be a temporary bounce from his State of the Union address. Still, if these high prices continue, they’ll certainly be a centerpiece of Republicans’ attacks in this year’s midterm elections.

Will those attacks work? The effect of gas prices specifically is tougher to disentangle than one might think. One issue here is that gas price shocks often precede recessions or are accompanied by other economic woes. That makes it difficult to suss out whether it’s expensive gasoline or those other economic factors that are affecting voters. Some analysts have concluded it’s more the latter, and that gas prices on their own don’t seem to affect elections much.

However, a study by Laurel Harbridge, Jon Krosnick, and Jeffrey Wooldridge found that rising gas prices seemed to hurt presidential approval: Between 1976 and mid-2007, each 10 cent gas price increase was followed by about a 0.6 percentage point drop in approval rating. (Prices have risen by about $1.73 since Biden took office, which would correspond to about a 10 point drop in approval. That’s about the decline he’s seen since his inauguration, though there are surely other factors at play as well.)

One thing that’s very clear, though, is that politicians believe high gas prices are very important. That’s illustrated in a noteworthy but mostly forgotten episode from the 2008 presidential election, when, for a brief stretch, gas prices hit record highs and it looked like they could determine the outcome of the election, sending the campaigns into a frenzy of position-taking.

A lot has changed in the 14 years since, but there are still some useful lessons from the 2008 saga.

The 2008 gas price showdown

By the spring of 2008, polls suggested that Democrats were narrow favorites to retake the White House. Incumbent president George W. Bush’s approval ratings were in the toilet, bogged down by a weakening economy and his long, bloody Iraq war. Barack Obama led both in a long primary battle with Hillary Clinton and in polls against GOP nominee presumptive John McCain, giving him a good shot to become the nation’s first Black president.

And then, all of a sudden, the presidential campaigns became consumed by the price of gas. 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.” (Serious problems related to subprime lenders had become evident in 2007, and investment bank Bear Stearns had been bailed out in March 2008, but the crisis’s biggest moments hadn’t happened yet.)

So out came the policy proposals. McCain and Clinton both proposed a federal gas tax holiday; Obama pooh-poohed it, calling it pandering that would achieve little, and economists agreed.

Yet after the primary wrapped up in June and gas prices kept rising, Obama concluded he needed to offer voters something, and announced he supported a “windfall profits tax” on oil companies. (Economists dismissed this as pandering that would achieve little.)

Yet though the conventional wisdom is that bad economic conditions hurt the incumbent party, Republicans were surprisingly optimistic that the gas price issue could benefit them. The party 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.

Democrats squirmed, and as the summer went on, they gradually concluded they had to cave. In July, the number two Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, said he and Majority Leader Harry Reid were “open to drilling and responsible production.” And in August, after Obama’s lead dropped several points in polls, he said he could support offshore drilling as part of a broader energy bill, and that he’d tap the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to try and drive down prices further. If the 2008 election was going to be fought on gas prices, Obama wasn’t going to lose it by seeming intransigent.

In the end, all this position-taking was overtaken by events. The financial crisis of the Great Recession kicked into high gear that September, resulting in plummeting stocks, plunging demand, rising unemployment — and falling gas prices. By Election Day, gas prices had dropped so much that they were about 22 percent lower than at the start of 2008. So the great gas price election showdown did not transpire.

How 2022 might be similar, and different

The midterm elections are still nearly eight months away, and so there’s ample time gas prices to move — in either direction. But there are some comforting, and some not-so-comforting, implications in the 2008 gas price wars for Joe Biden.

Biden could take heart in the fact that the incumbent party — the GOP — managed to put Democrats on the defensive on this issue. Perhaps that means that it’s not inevitable that he’ll be blamed by voters for high gas prices, and that with the proper messaging, he can avert that outcome.

Yet it’s not clear that will work out so well for Democrats this year. For one, it’s the midterms, which is almost always a perilous election cycle for the incumbent president’s party. The issue of high gas prices may also inherently advantage Republicans somewhat, since the GOP is the party more identified with support for untrammeled fossil fuel production rather than environmental concerns. So though Bush was president as gas prices soared in 2008, the GOP could push an offshore drilling advocacy message.

Biden does not have the same play available to him — he can’t outflank Republicans on drilling, as indeed they’re already calling on him to massively expand domestic production far beyond Democrats’ comfort level. Still, he could be encouraged by the fact that, even before the 2008 financial crisis replaced that year’s gas price problem with something more dire, the Republican attacks weren’t enough to totally sink Obama in the polls.

While many global trends affecting the price of oil are out of Biden’s hands, he does have the advantage of being able to use the powers of the presidency to ease the pain somewhat. Last November, he already announced he would tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to try to ease price increases, which he expanded on during his State of the Union address.

But by blocking Russian oil imports to the US, he’s now embracing a policy he admits could send prices higher. “Defending freedom is going to cost,” Biden said last week. Now he has to hope voters agree that cost is worth it.

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