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Politics At The Pump: LA Reacts To Gas Price Spike

Aaron Schrank |
February 29, 2012 | 7:27 p.m. PST


Gas prices shoot up near $5 a gallon (Photo via Creative Commons).
Gas prices shoot up near $5 a gallon (Photo via Creative Commons).
“There’s nothing I can do about it now, it’s on the credit card,” said Haik Turdjian, staring at the $85.63 readout at the gas pump. That’s $10 more than he was paying to fill up his truck a month ago.

Turdjian, an East Hollywood electrician, has been thinking a lot about gas prices lately, as he’s set to be transferred to work in Palmdale -- 60 miles from his home -- home—next month.

“If gas is going to be over $5 a gallon, it’ll be cheaper for me to stay home on unemployment than drive to Palmdale and work,” he said. “I’ve done the math.”

Gas prices have spiked over the past two weeks, bringing the national average to $3.70 per gallon on Monday, a record high for February. Los Angeles drivers have seen prices climb an average of 25 cents in the last week alone to $4.32, according to AAA. Republican presidential candidates, hoping to get political mileage out of the pain at the pump, introduced gasoline prices as a major talking point on the campaign trail last week.

Leading that charge, Newt Gingrich criticized President Obama’s energy policy, noting a sharp increase in gas prices since 2009 and revealing his own plan to get them down to $2.50 per gallon.

Political analysts acknowledge that the gas prices discussion is likely to resonate with some voters who are stretched thin by gas costs or see its price as a signal of the national economic condition. Some studies have found a correlation between gas prices and presidential approval rating, in spite of the fact that fuel pricing is cyclical and its ups and downs are largely outside of presidential control.

Voters are often more engaged with gas prices than they are other economic measures like gross domestic product or the national unemployment rate.

“People tend to use gas prices as a surrogate for the economy,” said Ann Crigler, a political science professor at the University of Southern California. “It shows what they’re up against in terms of their personal economics. It’s a very indirect measure, but it’s one that hits people in the face.”

Higher gas taxes and environmental standards make California the second most expensive state for gasoline, behind Hawaii, according to the Auto Club of Southern California.

As prices rise, some Angelenos are already starting to change their driving habits or cut back spending in other areas.

Sarah Quigley, who recently was laid off from her job as an events manager, said gas prices have been a burden.

“I’m driving around town and trying to do the freelance thing, and it’s hard,” she said, as she fueled up her hybrid. “I’ve already started to use public transit, and I will be increasing my usage if these prices continue to rise.”

Keith Albright, an 87-year-old piano tuner who travels around Los Angeles for work, said he remembers when gas was 17 cents a gallon. If it continues to surge toward $5, as some analysts forecast, Albright said it will threaten his income.

“I’ll have to take much less work,” he said. “It won’t make sense to travel across the city, so I’ll only take jobs that are closer to home.”

Some, like Kerry Crutchfield, do hold the President partly responsible.

“This place has gone up half a buck in less than two weeks,” he said, shaking his head after a glance up at the ARCO price billboard at a Hollywood filling station. “I’ll definitely be thinking about this when I vote, because I’m not happy with what’s been going on.”

Jon Krosnick, a political science and psychology professor at Stanford University, analyzed 30 years of trends in gas prices and presidential approval for a forthcoming research paper. Controlling against other factors tied to approval ratings, Krosnick found that as gas prices rose, approval of the president’s job performance declined. A ten-cent increase in gas prices is associated with a decline in approval by a half a percent, he said.

More common among political scientists is the notion that the relationship between gas prices and presidential approval is indirect.

“Rising gas prices often reflect or even cause broader economic problems,” said Brian Newman, a political science professor at Pepperdine University. “To the extent that increasingly expensive gas leads to higher inflation, higher unemployment, and lower GDP numbers, gas prices matter because these economic indicators are closely related to approval ratings and presidential election outcomes.”

Gas prices have played a role in past presidential elections. Ronald Reagan campaigned on lowering prices in the 1980 election and went on to defeat Jimmy Carter. In 2008, the year gas prices reached their highest recorded average price of $4.11 nationally, Barack Obama ran ads suggesting John McCain’s dealings with oil companies contributed to high prices.

Experts say that investor speculation is to blame for the current gas price spike.

“The primary factor this time has been heavy flow of investment money into gasoline and oil futures,” said Auto Club of Southern California spokeswoman Marie Montgomery. “It’s become this open secret now, that gas prices go up in the spring, and people want to make themselves some money. Unfortunately, that drives up prices for everyone.”

Montgomery added that concerns about Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz -- a major passageway for Middle East oil producers -- also play a role.

No matter their cause, rising gas prices spell trouble for President Obama. But that trouble may not continue to November.

Gas prices typically begin to spike in the spring and peak in the summer. If prices follow the usual pattern, voters will observe a drop in prices through the fall, taking the heat off President Obama just before Election Day.

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