Presidents at the Pump: How gas prices are affecting Obama vs. past presidents in the polls

Mar 12, 2012

Disapproval of President Obama's handling of the economy is heading higher - alongside gasoline prices - as a record number of Americans now give the president "strongly" negative reviews on the 2012 presidential campaign's most important issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

So how does Obama stack up in the polls against past presidents, and how much do gas prices have to do with that?

Jon Cohen, the Post's director of polling, chatted with readers about this and more, including how Obama is doing in the polls in other categories, and if this trend will continue.

Read: Gas prices sink Obama's ratings on economy, bring parity to race for White House

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Thanks for joining. Looking forward to the "conversation."

Does the Post call cell phones when conducting polls? Pew has found a significant difference in cell-phone only households -- I believe it was 5 points toward the Democrats -- which may explain why Pew's most recent poll (a month old) had President Obama up by 7 points over Governor Romney, whereas your poll has Governor Romney ahead by 2. The question is not about one pollster versus another, it only about whether the Post calls cell phones.

Yes, we include cell-phones in every news poll; in the new poll, 196 out of 1,003 total interviews were conducted with "cell only" adults.

Does the polling say that anyone else could be doing a better job with the economy- or in other words, does someone have better #'s than Obama, or is it just that his numbers aren't great?

Good question. We didn't ask about Obama vs. anyone else on handling the economy in this poll. Of course, if the election ends up as a referendum on Obama -- as many Republicans would like -- such comparisons would not matter. Obama's own ratings would be the only important element in that case, and here, he's slipping. The number of "strong disapprovers" of his economic stewardship is up nine points in just five weeks.

The number in today's released poll that stands out to me is the party identification. You increased Republicans by 4 points and Democrats by 3 from the last poll taken in February. Why? Where are you getting the numbers that Republican turnout is expected to rise and Democratic turnout is expected to decline? You have to a duty to show the what the poll results would be if the party ID remained the same as February's.

Yes, we have a marginally more GOP sample than we did five weeks ago, but we didn't "do" this as you seem to imply. We draw random samples, and both the February and March polls were weighted by age, race, sex and education, not by any pre-conceived notion of the partisan make-up of all Americans. There's nothing wrong with such an approach, it's just not the way we typically operate. We'd be happy to re-run some numbers for you; we've already committed to full disclosure, which is why you see those party id figures.

Please forgive my asking a silly question, but is there really anything the president has the power to do to lower gas prices? Oil is a commodity, trading it is obviously a lucrative business, and prices are set by the industry. I agree that prices are too high, but when you consider economic factors and the overall volatility of the Middle East, it's easy to see why the instability generates such large price increases. I think a lot of people oversimplify this to a level where people genuinely think the president can just say, "Now you be good little oil companies and lower your pump prices," and prices will simply come down. But the reality is it doesn't work that way. It's an industry thing (and a multinational industry at that), which the president has little to no control over. So I say again, what power does the president genuinely have to reduce gas prices? In my opinion, none.

A very good question. Polically at least, here's a case where perception may be more important than reality. In the our poll, 50 percent of Americans say the Obama administration can do something to reduce prices, although nearly as many, 45 percent, say prices are beyond the administration's control.

Does poll data support that gas prices are the "campaign's most important issue"? I would have thought jobs, afghanistan, and abortion were most important, and the percentage of respondents with "no opinion" (9%) on the gas prices issue is relatively high.

I was worried about the ordering of those sentences. The economy in issue No. 1, not gas prices.

Did people blame Bush for high gas prices more or less than Obama in the polls?

Yes, although the context was different. When gas prices jumped up under Bush, his overall ratings were far lower than Obama's are now. But in '05 and '06, far more singled out the Bush administration on higher pump prices than say so now about Obama's team.

Is it because nowadays practically everything is tied to gas prices? High gas prices correlates with higher costs for companies to exists, hence you get more unemployment, not to mention inflation?

Everyting is connected, you are right. The main point we're trying to make is that the issue isn't a narrow one about gas prices, but it's how rising prices there coincide with worsening ratings for Obama on handling the economy more broadly. Higher fuel prices also take away from the brighter economic news coming on the jobs front.

Is there some area of the economy where Obama does poll well? I'm guessing he polls poorly on gas prices, unemployment, housing, taxes, regulation...

Unlike in the fall, as many people now say Obama's economic program is making things better as say it's making things worse. In September, public opinion was 2 to 1 negative here. Unfortunately for the president, his gains on this question are limited to Democrats, so helps with the base, but not so far in winning over others.

Since the increase of gas prices directly affect many areas of our economy, the public always blame the people in charge which is Obama. Do you think that his action on Keystone and other restrictions on drilling in the Gulf will affect him in November?

Votes are always summary judgments, which may or may not include these specific policy decisions. But certainly these actions are likely to feed into assessments of the president's handling of energy policy. In our new poll, this is yet another area where the president is underwater, with 38 percent approving of his handling of energy policy; 48 percent disapproving. More related to vote choice is that here, as elsewhere, intensity of opinion runs against the president.

Excuse me, Mr. Cohen, but, yes the economy is important, but high gas prices can affect the economy in many ways.

Agree. Did I disagree?

I know you're working hard to develop polls that help Obama with his re-election campaign. What issues are best for Obama? We can't keep talking about contraception until November!

Funny, I don't think the Obama campaign would agree with you.

Today's Fix cited a poll from Rasmussen, which Nate Silver has found to be a biased pollster. Does Rasmussen meet the Post's standards for accuracy and nonpartisanship?

We started covering automated polls late last year, but only in limited ways, explained here.

Much as we'd all like someone to blame, especially the president, especially if he is not of your political persuasion, let's get real. The US must find alternatives to oil as a auto energy source - - drilling, baby, drilling - - just won't work forever. Many many past pols have refused to allow off-shore driling, just ask Jeb Bush. I would like to blame the oil companies, speculators, OPEC, and various mid-East dictators.

Last week, we asked an open-ended question about blame on gas prices, with our partners at the Pew Research Center. 18% blamed Obama/his administration; 14% oil companies; 11% Iran/Middle East tensions, others < 10%. A big 24% expressed no oninion, which is one reason both sides are tying so hard to frame attitudes now.


Link here:

Thanks for your questions. We'll have more from the poll this week. First look on Twitter @postpolls.

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Jon Cohen
Jon Cohen is director of polling for The Washington Post.
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