Could High Gas Prices Hurt Obama's Reelection Campaign?

Pain at the pump could mean pain at the polls for President Obama.

By + More

Now that the unemployment rate is marching downward, the GOP might have to find another economic woe to harangue President Obama about. If they look to their local gas pump, they could be in luck.

Thanks to tensions in the Middle East and refinery closures stateside, experts are projecting gasoline prices to jump 60 cents by Memorial Day. That's on top of an 11-cent spike over the past four weeks on the already sky-high gas prices Americans saw in January, the highest on record.

Experts say prices could even jump to $5 per gallon in cities such as New York and Chicago, and that pain at the pump could translate into some pain at the polls for Obama.

Some GOP contenders have already keyed into the issue of gas prices and how acutely consumers feel upticks in fuel costs. When she was still campaigning for the GOP nomination, Michele Bachmann promised to bring back $2-a-gallon gasoline. That might sound crazy when looking at average gas prices today, which currently hover around $3.48, but take a trip down memory lane and prices weren't far away from the $2 mark.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Over the past several years, gas prices have hit increasingly high starting points at the beginning of the year. On Dec. 31, 2008, average gas prices were around $1.61 per gallon, says Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com. On the same date in 2009, they were up to $2.64. Flash forward to last month, and prices hit $3.25 going into 2012.

Some of the price movements are expected in the run-up to the summer months, Laskoski says, primarily because refiners have to reformulate gasoline to include eco-friendly fuel additives.

On average, the spread between prices from Dec. 31 to peak are around 93 cents, he says. Adding that to $1.61 per gallon might not feel too bad to consumers, but when tacking it on to $3.25, consumers can start to feel squeezed. Budget-constrained consumers stop spending, which can be disastrous for the United States, which relies heavily on consumer spending to fuel its economy.

For the time being, the GOP isn't likely to back off its criticism of the high unemployment rate. But rising gas prices offer easy fodder and could cast a shadow on an increasingly bright employment picture for Obama.

[Read: GOP Shouldn't Hope for a White Knight or Brokered Convention.]

"It's something they're definitely going to talk about, because anything that's bad for the economy, Republicans will try to attach to Obama," says Danny Hayes, assistant professor of government at American University. "It's an easy target that people see every day when they're paying $40, $60, $80 at the pump."

Newt Gingrich took a page from Bachmann's playbook in a speech in Las Vegas on American energy independence, saying there is "no objective reason why we can't get back to $2-per-gallon gasoline," Talking Points Memo reported.

In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Gingrich brought up high gas prices again, railing on President Obama's "anti-American energy policies" and the "highest-priced gasoline in American history."

While gas prices remain shy of all-time highs—prices hit $4.11 per gallon back in July 2008—the chorus of complaints about fuel costs could grow louder as spring and summer approach.

"It's really troubling to see, because we know this kind of escalation is virtually inevitable," Laskoski says.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

Still, how effective gas price attacks will be is questionable. According to Hayes, research shows people pay more attention to broad indicators of economic health than they do to individual numbers.

"What really matters to them is the state of the economy overall, not so much specific indicators like gas prices," Hayes says. "They understand that their own fortunes are a product of a variety of things [such as] education, but the national economy, they assume the president himself is responsible for."

"Given the choice between a growing economy and high gas prices and a struggling economy and low gas prices, [Obama] would take the good economy," Hayes adds.