Behind the Numbers

Politics at the Pump

Why do domestic politicians pay the price for a global problem?

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog

Gas price spikes at home have the potential to focus American voters on global issues like limited oil supply, potential conflicts in the Middle East, and economic growth in China and India. Indeed, economists point to all three of these as key factors in gas prices.

But foreign policy has taken a backseat in the debate over gas prices, which continue to flirt near $4 a gallon, and polls show Americans blame domestic culprits just as much as global factors for higher pump prices.

Part of the domestic focus can be chalked up to the belief that the federal government is capable of solving the problem: 50 percent of Americans in a March Washington Post-ABC News poll said the Obama administration can "reasonably" do something to reduce gas prices, and 54 percent in a CBS News/New York Times poll said Obama "can do a lot about" gas prices.

From the street level, the way Americans experience gas price hikes doesn’t lend itself to an international outlook. Drivers fill up at their local station, wince as they swipe their cards or dig deeper into their wallet to pay the cashiers, and drive away with less money. No part of that experience reminds drivers of an unstable Middle East, global oil markets, or the world’s limited petroleum supply.

Political gamesmanship also may feed the idea that Washington can temper the ups and downs of gas prices. Public opinion isn’t formed in a vacuum, and voters may be taking cues from their leaders that government is responsible for gyrations at the pump. Republicans have attacked Obama for high gas prices this year, just as President George W. Bush took heat when he was in office. Obama’s presidential campaign has taken aim at likely challenger Mitt Romney, accusing him of supporting tax breaks for big oil companies. Polls show plenty of evidence of partisan assessments: Two-thirds of Republicans in the March Post-ABC poll said the Obama administration is capable of reducing gas prices, a view shared by just one-third of Democrats. Those positions were flipped when George W. Bush, a Republican, was in power.

Complexity of the issue is yet another factor. While a violent conflict in an oil-producing nation is sometimes an obvious cause of a gas price increase, the causes are much less clear on other occasions, like this year. One in four Americans in a February Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll did not name anyone as the main culprit for the recent rise in gas prices.

Despite the focus on domestic bogeymen, some of the public is connecting the dots between rising prices and international demand or conflict. More than eight in 10 Americans in a recent CNN/ORC poll said foreign oil-producing countries deserve at least some blame for increases in gas prices. In the Post-Pew poll, just over one in 10 Americans named Iran, Middle East unrest, and the threat of war together as the No. 1 culprit for rising gas prices, ranking third in an open-ended survey question. Some respondents also named China, India, or global demand.

And as long as the public debate and public opinion are focused domestic causes to heightened gas prices, few will look for foreign policy remedies.

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