The 17-day slide in gasoline prices this month may diminish a campaign issue that President Barack Obama’s critics have frequently raised though the decline is unlikely to sway undecided voters.
Republican Mitt Romney has cited higher prices at the pump as evidence Obama’s energy policies have failed. During the Oct. 16 debate with Obama, Romney said gasoline costs had doubled since the president took office in 2009.
Obama responded by saying prices were low early in his term because the U.S. economy “was on the verge of collapse.” He said domestic oil production has increased during his term.
Cheaper gasoline may make voters feel more “flush” and that the economy is headed in the right direction, Michael Webber, an associate professor at the University of Texas who studies energy policy, said in an inteview. While not determinative, gasoline costs are part of a “suite of issues” that voters will weigh in choosing a candidate, he said.
“I think it makes a difference,” Webber said. “It takes a line of attack away from Romney. It may not make people like Obama more, but it’s one less weapon in Romney’s arsenal.”
Gasoline prices nationwide fell below $3.60 a gallon on average on Oct. 24, down 20 cents from a month ago, according to figures released by AAA, the largest national motoring group. The AAA price has declined every day starting Oct. 8.
Michael Green, a Washington-based spokesman for AAA, said prices may fall as low as $3.40 by Election Day on Nov. 6. That would still be the highest price on a presidential election, Green said.
Gasoline futures rose yesterday for the first time in 11 days, ending the longest decline since trading began in 1986, on concern Hurricane Sandy may threaten East Coast refineries next week. Gasoline jumped 2.8 percent in New York trading.
On the day Obama took office, gasoline prices on average were $1.85 a gallon. Just six months earlier, in July 2008 during George W. Bush’s administration, gasoline reached a record-high daily average of $4.11, prompting calls from Republicans to “drill, baby, drill” and develop domestic resources.
Voters tend to lump gasoline prices in a larger bucket of issues that help give a feel for the overall health of the economy, said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
He said gas prices would have minimal impact this election.
“It’s better to have them going down,” Oppenheimer said in an interview. “Does that change any votes for president? I don’t think so.”
Rising gasoline costs emerged as an election issue at the start of this year, when prices touched record highs and the approaching U.S. summer driving season threatened to push them up even higher.
Romney in March referred to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the secretaries of Energy and Interior as the “gas-hike trio.”
The American Energy Alliance, a Washington-based group funded in part by oil companies, criticized Obama in a television commercial titled “Nine Dollar Gas.”
Prices receded, removing the issue as a campaign topic until rebounding in August and touching $3.87 on Sept. 13.
“It was an issue early, in late winter and early spring when prices were going up and it looked like they were headed through the roof,” Oppenheimer said. “It doesn’t matter too much when its $3.50 a gallon and going down. The people who were already upset about it, they decided how they were going to vote a long time ago.”
While Webber said the fall was “good news” for Obama, there is a down side. Gas prices are tied to the price of oil and high crude prices translates to more domestic production, which reduces the need for oil imports, he said. High gasoline prices also force drivers to conserve, which is good for the environment, he said.
Neither Obama nor Romney will probably talk about the benefit of keeping gas prices high during the final two weeks of the campaign, he said.