Rising Gas Prices and the 2006 Vote

Rising oil prices could have an impact on upcoming elections. Public frustration over gas prices and long gasoline lines cost President Carter his re-election in 1980, some critics are predicting that current gas prices may hurt Republican politicians in the 2006 mid-term elections.

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Here's more evidence that rising energy prices are hitting family budgets. Consumer prices rose in July, largely because of oil and gas bills. Some people may respond by changing their cars, and in a moment, we'll hear about a new benefit for some drivers of hybrids. Political observers are asking if people will respond by changing their leaders. NPR's Jim Zarroli has some history.

JIM ZARROLI reporting:

Jimmy Carter found out the hard way what can happen to a president when energy prices spike. In the late 1970s, oil reached levels that in inflation-adjusted terms still have not been surpassed. He tried to convince the public he was addressing the problem.

President JIMMY CARTER: Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the president and the Congress to govern this nation. This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war.

ZARROLI: But President Carter, of course, lost re-election in 1980 in no small part because of public frustration over long gasoline lines. Today, oil prices have topped $66 a barrel, and a lot of people are once again expressing unhappiness about what's going on. Derick Erikson stopped at a service station in Portland, Maine, yesterday. Erikson, who works at a company that services garage doors, says his family's commuting costs are getting out of hand.

Mr. DERICK ERIKSON: I think it's ridiculous. I really do. It's a ridiculous thing. It's affecting everything. If it gets any worse, I'm sure the economy is going to be feeling it.

ZARROLI: With the 2006 midterm elections approaching, one of Republicans' biggest worries is that energy prices will keep rising and that voters will take out their frustration on the party in power. That doesn't seem to be happening yet. Just 8 percent of the respondents of a recent Gallup Poll cited energy prices as one of the most serious problems facing the country, well behind Iraq and the economy. Back in 1979, 33 percent cited gas prices. Frank Newport is editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Editor in Chief, Gallup Poll): So I don't think, despite the $2.50-a-gallon prices that we are confronted with across the country, that energy is now kind of dominating Americans' thinking when they think about the problems that they are facing.

ZARROLI: But Newport notes that earlier this year Gallup asked voters how high gasoline prices would have to go before they'd consider the country to be in a crisis. The median answer, he says, was between 2.50 and $3 a gallon, about where prices are right now.

Mr. NEWPORT: So one could argue we're kind of at the cusp perhaps of reaching that crisis point if gas prices still go up, but we just don't know.

ZARROLI: Newport also points out another potential problem for Republicans. Many economists say the run-up in energy prices is driven by a lot of factors outside the president's control, especially the surge in demand from China, but polls suggest that a majority of voters believe the president can have a direct impact on energy prices. There are voters such as Sandra Glass, who stopped a service station in suburban Pittsburgh yesterday. Glass says Washington officials could bring gas prices down if they really wanted.

Ms. SANDRA GLASS (Voter): It's not costing them what it's costing us. It doesn't have to be this high. I do think they have the power to change it.

ZARROLI: Republicans can point to the massive energy bill signed into law by President Bush this month as evidence they're trying to address the problem, but even the president acknowledged the bill would do little about energy prices in the short term. That could leave Republicans with little to offer voters next year if prices keep rising. Political analyst Greg Valliere of the Stanford Washington Research Group says he expects Democrats to try to exploit this.

Mr. GREG VALLIERE (Political Analyst, Stanford Washington Research Group): They'll demand some answers as to why the Bush administration hasn't done more in terms of pressuring oil producers to produce more. I do think there are some openings here for the Democrats.

ZARROLI: Valliere says it remains to be seen whether Democrats will actually succeed in using the issue against the president, but if prices keep rising, he says, their task is likely to get easier.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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