Memorial Day weekend usually heralds an annual surge in gasoline prices, as American drivers hit the road and oil refiners switch to a cleaner but pricier summer fuel blend. And in an election year, rising prices usually means heightened political rhetoric about energy, drilling, and the role of big oil.
But this summer is kicking off with a drop in gas prices for a change. After prices at the pump hit record seasonal highs this spring, shooting from an average of $3.38 for a gallon of regular in January to $3.90 in April, they’ve slid to an average of $3.81 for May and are projected to keep falling for the rest of the year, down to around $3.62 by November, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The price surge ignited a huge springtime fight over energy: Republicans pounced as polls showed that Americans largely blamed President Obama for the increase.
Republican presidential and congressional candidates launched aggressive attacks linking Obama to high gas prices. House Republicans crafted a slew of bills to expand oil and gas drilling, which they’d planned to bring to the floor in the first week of June, to coincide with the expected annual price hike.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reconstituted a group that had deployed to push the “drill, baby, drill” message in 2008—the House Energy Action Team. On Thursday, the HEAT squad held events slamming the nation’s so-called “skyrocketing gas prices” in congressional districts in Arkansas, Colorado, Texas, Kansas, Ohio, California, and Louisiana.
But the dropping prices deflate the GOP’s attack while allowing the president to pivot back to a push for clean energy.
In March, when gasoline prices were climbing daily, Obama touted oil production in speeches at the nation’s oil pipeline hub in Cushing, Okla., and at a New Mexico oilfield.
On Thursday, with gas prices falling, he gave a speech in the battleground state of Iowa, urging Congress to extend tax credits on wind-energy production—a proposal he’s put on a “Top 5” list of job-creation legislation.
Republicans say they have no plans to ease up on the gas-price attacks. Even though prices are going down, they’re still close to historic record highs, and energy analysts predict that overall, 2012 could close out as the year with the highest average gasoline prices on record.
“This will be an ongoing conversation we’ll have with the American people, that under the Republican plan we’ll lower the price at the pump,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who held a gas-price roundtable in Greeley, Colo., on Thursday.
“It’s still $60 or $70 to fill up a tank of gas,” he said. “My constituents recognize that gas prices are a huge burden. The president may wish that this conversation ends, but gas over $3 a gallon—the American people will not stand for it.”
Democrats remain ready to fight back on the issue.
“There is one person in this race trying to benefit from high gas prices and that’s Mitt Romney,” said Bill Burton, cofounder of Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC. “The more Americans pay for gas, the more money Romney’s biggest supporters have to run ads to help him. Americans simply can’t trust someone like Romney to keep gas prices low when he benefits so much from them being high.”
But Jon Krosnick, a political scientist at Stanford University whose research focuses on the impact of energy issues on elections, said that for now, the gas-price fight won’t register with voters. What will matter is the price of gas in the weeks before the election—and the direction it’s been going. “It won't matter much what Republicans or Democrats say about these changes in prices,” Krosnick said. “Our research suggests that people watch and react to the prices directly, because they see the prices on signs while driving down the street, and they see the prices as they pump gas. Attempts at spin by candidates won’t change those first-hand impressions.”
Krosnick added: “What will matter is how gas prices look in late October. Are they high or low? Are they rising or falling?”