Gas Prices and the White House Confusion Over Independents

by Noam Scheiber | March 13, 2012

I’m hardly the first to seize on the new Washington Post poll showing Obama’s continued struggles with independents. Heck, I’m not even the  first writer at this magazine to weigh in. But there’s a wrinkle of the story that’s received less attention, and so I think it’s worth piling on a bit more. 

According to the Post’s write-up, and to many of the commentators who’ve kibitzed about it, Obama’s sudden retreat among independents—57 percent now disapprove of his handling of the economy—is mostly a function of rising gas prices. (A New York Times poll out today points to a similar conclusion.) 

I don’t disagree with this, but I’d argue that the results underscore something broader: the way the White House has misunderstood  independents for much of Obama’s first term.

The White House spent Obama’s first two-and-a-half years in office under the impression that independents were most concerned about deficits. This reading of independents was especially influential shortly after the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans regained control of the House and picked up several seats in the Senate. As I write in my new book about Obama and the economy, Bill Daley, Obama’s chief of staff (who has since left) and David Plouffe, the president’s top political adviser, became convinced that independents were exercised about out-of-control government spending. As one administration official familiar with their strategizing told me, “Plouffe specifically said, ‘We’re going to need a period of ugliness’—he meant with the left—‘so that people in the center understand that we’re not wasting their tax dollars.’”

The problem with this is that it reflected a fundamental confusion about who independents were. In the book, I summarize some existing work showing that most people who call themselves independents are pretty similar to traditional partisan voters: They reliably vote Democrat or Republican and simply prefer not to state their party affiliation. The independents actually up for grabs tend to be working class whites, who base their vote first and foremost on their personal economic situation. Though many of these independents did tell pollsters they were upset about the deficit in 2010 and 2011, a slightly closer reading of the data suggested they weren’t upset about spending per se. They were upset that the spending—on the stimulus and health care—didn’t appear to have helped the economy, since unemployment was still extremely high. (I happen to disagree with them—I think the stimulus helped quite a bit—but that was undeniably their view.)

Which is to say, by focusing on deficit-reduction rather than job-creation, the White House was ignoring the problem independents were most exercised about.

So what does this have to do with gasoline prices?

Assuming the conventional wisdom is right and gas prices are the reason for the decline in Obama’s approval ratings, the recent turn of events strongly supports the reading of independents I just laid out, and strongly implies that Plouffe and Daley were wrong. After all, rising gas prices hit working-class voters hardest, since spending on gas chews up a proportionately larger share of their income. And this increased financial strain appears to have translated quite quickly into softer support for the president. If there were any doubt that the politically relevant subset of independents are basically working class people who vote their pocket books, the recent poll findings should dispel it. 

In fairness, the president and his advisers appear to have learned this lesson over the past several months. The Times write-up of its poll reports that, “Mr. Obama’s aides have expressed concern for weeks that rising gas and fuel prices … could harm his political standing.” And yet the White House still hasn’t completely assimilated the implications of this lesson. In recent months, for example, it has taken to stressing the solid job growth of the last year, as the president did in his State of the Union Address. Given that the unemployment rate is still an unappetizing 8.3 percent, the theory implicit in this message is that voters will be impressed by the trends in the economy even if the current circumstances are far from good.

But, again, this misreads independents, who tend to vote on how they’re feeling about the economy at the moment they’re asked. No surprise, then, that the message has largely bombed among independents. Longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found that the riff in the State of the Union about recent job growth appealed to a mere 26 percent of independents. The reason, Greenberg explained, is both that such voters “have not seen these jobs or felt the effects of job creation” and that “they are also deeply concerned that these jobs are not permanent.”

Greenberg went on to note that, absent a genuine improvement in their personal bottom lines, the only reliable way to excite independents was to tout policies aimed at strengthening the middle class, which at least has the benefit of speaking to their anxieties. Given the likelihood that the economy and the unemployment rate stay about where they are between now and November—and the ever-present risk of still higher energy prices—the White House would be wise to heed his advice. That means no idle talk about deficits or the recent economic uptick, its favorite topics of the last twelve months. Will the White House have the presence of mind to hold that line? As I say, probably only if it’s finally thinking straight about independents.

Update: Chait points out something I missed:  

That seems to be the message that came through after Friday’s jobs report. Obama appeared at a factory to hail the news, and even declared later that day, yes, “America is coming back.” 
This may all be a pure coincidence. But the timing works out almost perfectly, with the Friday news driving three days of polling results that would appear on Monday. If true, this vindicates Democracy Corps’s warning to Obama. The public is ready to credit him for trying, they really hate the Republicans, but they do not think that it’s morning in America and respond badly to any suggestion that they ought to feel cheerful.

Not exactly the kind of presence of mind I was hoping for here...

Update II: Brad Plumer pours water on the idea that gas prices can dictate a president's fate:

It’s hard to rule anything out, but evidence remains thin that gasoline will be a determining factor in November. While Americans love to grumble about expensive gasoline — and with good reason — political science research suggests that it’s not the main thing that shifts votes. Nate Silver, for one, has found that “there’s not a lot of evidence that oil prices are all that important” a factor in presidential elections. Nor do gasoline prices necessarily dictate the public’s view of the White House: Back during George W. Bush’s presidency, there was a much-linked graph showing his approval ratings climbing and dipping in lockstep with gas prices. But subsequent analysis by political scientist Brendan Nyhan showed that the correlation was just a “statistical artifact.”
The more severe worry for Obama, at this point, is that soaring gas prices could stomp on the nascent economic recovery. The way this typically happens is that pricey gasoline starts crimping the checkbooks of U.S. consumers, who then have less money to spend on other things. (In the Post-ABC poll, most respondents said they were already feeling the pinch.) That leads to slower growth. And slower growth, political scientists agree, really can sink a presidency. As Silver puts it, “higher gas prices are important to the extent that they affect things like G.D.P., inflation and unemployment. But there isn’t evidence that they matter above and beyond that.”

I don't necessarily disagree with this, but two quick points in response: 1. Rising gas prices are more likely to be a precursor to broader economic problems when the economy is very fragile and consumers are financially strapped. 2. Gas prices may loom larger in and of themselves when the economy is very fragile and consumers are financially strapped. 

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