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Pumped Up?

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Few would dispute that if gasoline prices go substantially higher and remain there for a sustained period, they will hurt President Bush and damage his party in the midterm elections.

But how much have near-record gasoline prices hurt the Republicans so far? A clue might be found in the results of the latest Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national survey, conducted April 27-30 among 1,003 adults, 89 percent of whom were registered voters.

RT Strategies pollster Thom Riehle argues that voters who say that the issue most important to them is the price of gasoline are not, in fact, "particularly motivated, and their association with the issue does not seem to make their views different from the mix of views you'd get from any randomly selected group of voters. That suggests that [high] gas prices may make people angry, fearful, or cynical, but do not make them Democratic or Republican loyalists, and do not drive them to the polls.... It would be very difficult for either party at this time to build a political case around gas prices."

Riehle and his partner, Lance Tarrance, asked respondents to name which of seven issues will be most important to them in deciding how to vote for Congress in the midterms -- in much the way exit polls ask voters what issue most influenced their decision. The top response was jobs and the economy with 19 percent, followed by the war in Iraq with 16 percent.

There was essentially a four-way tie for third place, with gasoline prices, immigration, and health care at 12 percent each and education at 11 percent. Terrorism trailed with 7 percent. (Other issues and "don't know" received a combined 12 percent.)

But among respondents who seem most likely to vote, the 54 percent who rated their interest in the upcoming election as either a 9 or a 10 -- on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being highest -- gasoline prices came in dead last of the seven issues.

Interestingly, 65 percent of respondents who cited terrorism as their top concern said they are highly motivated to vote, as did 62 percent of those who chose Iraq, 58 percent of those who cited immigration, and 57 percent of those who picked health care. Bringing up the rear were the jobs/economy voters at 51 percent, the education voters at 50 percent, and the gasoline-price voters at just 39 percent.

What's more, gasoline voters don't sound much different from other respondents. The survey showed that 49 percent of registered voters say they favor Democrats' controlling Congress after this midterm election while just 37 percent favor GOP control, a 12-point Democratic edge. Republicans had a 60-point advantage among terrorism voters while Democrats had a 43-point advantage among Iraq voters, a 29-point advantage among education voters, a 24-point advantage among jobs/economy voters, and a 19-point edge among health care voters.

Republicans had a 16-point advantage with immigration voters. But among gasoline voters, the Democratic advantage was 10 points, 48 percent to 38 percent, almost mirroring the overall number. In other words, gasoline prices didn't seem to make a lot of difference.

Now these data only tell us about the situation as of a week ago. They may or may not tell us much about the future. Taking inflation into account, gasoline prices would have to average $3.18 in today's dollars to set a record. And we're not there yet.

As a share of personal disposable income, the price of a gallon of gas in March was just over 0.30 percent, according to Tom Gallagher, a D.C.-based political economist with International Strategy and Investment, a firm that advises Wall Street clients on economics, policy, and politics. That compares with 0.24 of a percentage point back in November 2004.

What price would gasoline have to hit to upset voters enough for them to respond differently from what we've seen so far? No one knows. But, obviously, the political impact of this issue is more complicated than some observers seem to think.

 
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