Inside the numbers: Gas prices

Posted: May 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Have you wondered why the Democrats are so quiet on the seemingly tempting issue of sky-high gas prices during the current political season?
The answer is that they've already seen polling numbers similar to those in our most recent survey of American voters. The InsiderAdvantage poll asked, "If the price of gasoline remains high, will that have an effect on your vote for president?"

 The results:
 Yes:   33 percent
 No:   63 percent
 Don't know:     4 percent

 The poll was conducted in April among 500 Americans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 That an essential part of most Americans' lives doesn't show up independently as a major voting issue doesn't necessarily mean the same issue won't influence the overall perception voters have this November. After all, the many gas crises of the 1970s weren't the main cause for the downfall of any of that decade's incumbent presidents, but the collective weight of the overall issue of energy crisis and availability of oil did neither President Ford nor President Carter any favors in their respective bids for re-election. And the impact oil prices had on the sluggish economy of the '70s and early '80s was undeniable.

 Our current soaring gas prices -- reaching a peak just as the nation prepares to set out for summer travel -- is another in a slew of merging issues that could collectively result in a change not only in control of the White House, but also make the battle for Congress more problematic for Republicans.

 There may be some light at the end of the tunnel. OPEC has signaled potential increases in production. And historically, just as gas prices reach their zenith and begin to dominate the news, supply and demand often reverse, allowing everyone to take their minds off the amount of money it takes to fill up their cars, trucks and SUVs.

 Perhaps most intriguing in this survey is that Americans seem relatively unfazed by gas prices. This suggests several things. Perhaps most significantly, it implies that Americans are rapidly becoming more like Europeans, who for decades have grown used to paying high prices for petroleum.

 Moreover, even though gasoline is an essential part of our lives, many of us apparently realize that we can cut down our consumption of it without seriously jeopardizing our lifestyles. If so, high prices at the pump may be more palatable to voters than one might think at first blush, and that realization may offer a rare opportunity to raise significant government revenue without a taxpayer revolt.

 In large measure, current gas taxes are designed to directly deal with the consequences of the use of roads, highways and transportation in general. It's recently been proposed by some in the media that these proceeds should be earmarked for uses other than transportation, and to preserve access to the oil reserves themselves.

 After all, the war in Iraq and the quest for stability in the Middle East, along with so many other geopolitical situations, are in part inextricably linked to preserving our access to oil. And with nations such as China and India increasing their demand for petroleum, we may soon face far greater competition for this access.

 Perhaps the cost of preserving stability in the world's oil-producing regions -- including efforts at dealing with terrorism and despots such as Saddam Hussein threatening oil-rich regions such as Kuwait -- could be supported by an additional dedicated tax on consumption here at home.

 Far-fetched? Maybe. Admittedly, it's a stretch from these polling results; they simply indicate that gas prices likely won't directly affect the race for president. Regardless, the media will hype the issue in the coming weeks and months.

 Still, many conservatives have for years touted the need for America's system of taxation to shift from one that penalizes productivity and personal economic growth to one that taxes consumption instead. If a consumption tax of great consequence ever seemed doable, gasoline may be the perfect fit.