LOS ANGELES -- The price of gasoline again has replaced the price of milk as the American household's touchstone of how far its spending dollar goes.
And there is an interesting -- though perhaps coincidental -- connection between rapidly rising gasoline prices and presidential election year results.
According to election data from the past 32 years, presidents who oversaw relatively flat gasoline prices had their parties stay in power. But those who presided over a sudden hike in gasoline prices in the year leading up to the election almost uniformly saw their parties voted out of office.
The price of gasoline is tied to numerous factors -- from tensions in the Middle East to changing refining regulations to different formulations for gasoline in summer. And there are usually larger macro issues, from the economy to foreign policy, that affect voters' decision-making.
But according to February polling by GfK Roper, pump prices are a major election issue for Americans this year.
Seventy-one percent of Americans said gasoline prices are "extremely" or "very important" to them, up from 65 percent only two months earlier, according to GfK Roper.
That ranks pump prices below the economy, education and unemployment on a list of concerns; but equal to taxes, terrorism and the deficit; and above immigration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"President Obama should be concerned about this rise in concern about the price of gas. It is one of his weakest points with the public today," said Geoff Feinberg, vice president of consulting for GfK Roper.
Obama's handling of gasoline prices is tied with the budget deficit in creating the most voter dissatisfaction.
David Kelly, chief market strategist for J.P. Morgan Funds in New York, said drawing a direct correlation between the price of gasoline and the president's performance is nearly impossible -- but voters and pundits do it anyway.
If U.S. foreign policy quashes terrorism in the Middle East, voters may side with the president, even if the strategy means higher gasoline prices.
"Gas prices are a proxy for a lot of things going on. It's so hard to disentangle the pure effect of high gas prices from all the things that cause it," Kelly said.
Obama has noted rising gasoline prices in several recent speeches, accusing Republican foes of making political hay from the situation: "You can bet that since it's an election year, they're already dusting off their three-point plans for two-dollar gas," Obama said in a speech.
But each side of the aisle can use the price of gasoline to bolster its political agenda, said Bill Reinert, Toyota's national manager of alternative fuel vehicles.
"The left wants electric vehicles powered by windmills. The right thinks you should have an oil pump in your back yard, or else you're a communist," Reinert said.
America is now producing more oil than it has in eight years, and is exporting more oil than it imports, Obama retorts to Republican attacks.
So why doesn't America just keep more oil to itself, to keep gasoline prices down? Capitalism. Oil companies sell to buyers that maximize their profits, regardless of nationality.
"It's a global commodities market," Reinert said. "Oil is going to go to the people who can pay the most, and it's not going to be us. It's going to be China."
That means gasoline prices likely will rise sharply through summer.
|Gas price trend before election day||Election result|
|1980||Soars 60% in previous 18 months to $1.26 per gallon||Reagan ousts incumbent Carter|
|1984||Down 7% in Reagan's first term to $1.21; flat in 1984||Reagan re-elected|
|1988||Down 17% through second term to 96 cents||Reagan's VP Bush beats Dukakis|
|1992||Rises 26% during Bush's term; up 8% to $1.15 in 1992||Clinton ousts Bush|
|1996||Rose from $1.13 in Jan. to $1.22 in October||Clinton re-elected|
|2000||Jumps 60% to $1.56 from Jan. 1999 to October 2000||Bush beats Gore|
|2004||Up 27% in 2004 to $2.03||Bush re-elected|
|2008||Soars from $1.82 in Jan. 2005 to $4.09 in July 2008; back to $3.17 in Oct.||Obama beats McCain|
|Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration|