Highest Gas Prices of Presidential Election Years

VIDEO: Drivers' outrage over cost of fuel shows in president's poll numbers.
ABCNEWS.com

Will the gas prices from March play a role at the polls in November? A look at previous gas prices in the March of presidential election years reveals that this year's prices are, indeed, historical for March and have not been equaled, even in March of 1984 when Ronald Reagan was re-elected or in March of 1980, when Jimmy Carter was not.

The highest March gas prices recording during March of election years show that soaring gas costs have accompanied both the ousting and rehiring of former presidents.

This time of year is not usually the culprit for colossal costs at the pump, but consumers have faced record-setting gas prices this month, reaching the highest weekly average price for March since 1990 this week.

For March as a whole, the highest weekly average price Energy Information Administration projects an average national gas price of $3.82 – the highest for an election year since 1976.

Gas costs threaten the economy because of the toll they take on consumer confidence. In an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called gas prices a "major problem," because "they're obviously a hardship for lots of people. It must be awfully frustrating to get a small raise at work and then have it all eaten by a higher cost of commuting."

But in terms of threatening economic recovery, Bernanke said gas prices are only a "moderate risk."

However, polls show that the price of gas may have already begun to play a role in the presidential election.

Secretary of Energy Chu recently gave his department an "A" on gas prices, even though they are soaring to over $4 per gallon in some states, including Washington, DC, itself. But a recent ABC/Washington Post poll indicates that a majority of Americans disagree with Secretary Chu's evaluation.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say they disapprove of how the Obama administration has handled gas prices, and 89 percent are concerned about the recent spike in gas prices.

However, it's still a long road to November, and the summer months – the usual suspects for soaring gas prices – are looming ahead. The Department of Energy expects gas prices to peak in August.

The following list includes gas prices, both adjusted and unadjusted for inflation, provided by the Energy Information Administration.

The EIA's projected average gas price for March is the highest the country has seen for this month in recent history. At $3.82 per gallon, it may have implications for November's election, especially if prices continue to rise as predicted.

On the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich has blasted President Obama for the gas prices and claimed that he would lower gas prices to $2.50 per gallon if he were elected.

However, presidential control of gas prices may not be as straight-forward as Gingrich seems to think.

Over 70 percent of the price of gas is derived from global oil prices, which are largely influenced by the policies of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as OPEC.

On the other hand, taxes, the aspect of gas prices over which the president has the most direct control, comprises 11 percent of the overall price at the pump, according to the Energy Information Administration. National taxes on purchases of highway fuels have not been adjusted since 2003. The current tax rate is 18.4 cents per gallon.

OPEC can set production quotas for its member countries and largely determine global oil prices, based on its estimation of global supply relative to demand at a given time. Among other factors, foreign political turbulence can cause shocks to these prices that usually drive them up.

U.S. gets its petroleum from 49 percent imports and 51 percent U.S. production. Forty-nine percent of U.S. oil imports are from countries in the Western Hemisphere. Canada is the U.S.'s leading crude oil supplier.

PHOTO: Barack Obama speaks on the phone at a campaign office in this file photo dated November 4, 2008 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In March of 2008, Obama and Hillary Clinton were still battling it out for the Democratic nomination, while John McCain had been declared the presumptive nominee for the Republicans.

The gas price at that time was very high, at $3.46 per gallon, but the truly astronomical price of $4.27 per gallon hit in June of that year. By that time, Obama gained enough delegates to claim a majority.

These gas prices likely played a role in the November election, but it was probably the summer-time highs that were on voters' minds at the polls where they elected a Democrat president.

A major issue during those primaries was a debate about the proposal of a summer national gas tax holiday to relieve prices.

In April, Obama defended his opposition to the suspension of the gas tax, saying it was only a short-term solution to a long-term problem that would only save tax payers a half of a tank of gas over three months.

In March of that year, John McCain had "It isn't a lot of money, but there's a lot of Americans that could use a little break," McCain said.

He also attacked Obama for his opposition to the tax holiday, saying, "Obviously Sen. Obama does not understand that what this would be a nice thing for Americans."

As the gas prices escalated in June, then-President George Bush "If Congressional leaders leave for the Fourth of July recess without taking action, they will need to explain why $4-a-gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act," Bush said at the time. "And Americans will rightly ask how high oil – how high gas [prices have to rise before the Democratic-controlled Congress will do something about it."

PHOTO: Ronald Reagan campaigns in New Hampshire at the start of his 1984 re-election campaign.
Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984, despite an economic recession that had hit the country mid-way through his first term.

One of the first things Reagan did as president was ending price controls on domestic oil put in place in the 1970's. After peaking at $3.65 per gallon in the March of his first year in office, average monthly gas prices slowly began to decline and finally fell below three dollars per gallon in September of 1982.

But not all of Reagan's economic policies worked quite so well. In 1981, Reagan signed into law the Economic Tax Recovery Act, based on supply-side economics. But the economy didn't deliver. Reagan's approval rating then nose-dived with the economy, dropping to 35 percent in January of 1983.

By the crucial election year of 1984, Reagan had a positive message for voters in a campaign ad that declared, "It's morning again in America."

The ad emphasized the number of Americans with jobs and the favorable interest rates that would lead to a brighter future for young people after the economic recession of 1982.

The ad also showed a man getting in a car to go to work, but he was not getting in his own car. He climbed into a car that pulled up to the curb beside his house, apparently carpooling with someone. This may have been a message to the American people that there was still a need for energy conservation, since in March of 1984 gas prices were still at the fourth-highest level of any election year in recent history.

PHOTO: Jimmy Carter during the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York, N.Y.
Ron Galella/Getty Images

The average national gas price of the late 1970's energy crisis peaked in the March of the year when Carter ran for re-election.

Many consider the Carter Administration the presidency that was doomed by a flailing domestic economy, exacerbated by an energy crisis that even resulted in gas station riots.

This combined with foreign policy issues like the Iran hostage crisis, Carter faced a tough re-election campaign.

Even at the beginning of his tenure, an address to the nation on energy in 1977, nearly freshly-inaugurated President Jimmy Carter called the energy crunch "the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime…with the exception of preventing war."

Carter predicted that the energy crisis was likely to get worse throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

"We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources," Carter said in his address.

Carter may have been right – at least about the following few years of his one-term presidency.

In March of 1977, a month before he gave that address, the average national gas price was $2.46 per gallon. Three years later, when Carter was preparing for his re-election campaign, the prices had risen by $1.11.

A gas price of $3.57 per gallon is the second-highest March average during an election year since 1976, after this year. Some political pundits on the right have tried to draw comparisons between Carter and Obama. In this case, at least, the comparison may hold.

PHOTO: Accompanied by supporter John Wayne, President Ford addresses a crowd from atop his limousine in Orange County, California, during the final stretch of the campaign October 24, 1976 in Fountain Valley, Calif.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

The president who was never elected into office was never re-elected, either. In the March of Gerald Ford's election year, gas prices were the fifth-highest for March of any election year from 1976 until now.

But gas prices were probably not the only driving factor in Gerald Ford's defeat to Jimmy Carter.

The Watergate scandal was still fresh in voters' minds, and some felt that Ford added insult to injury by granting Richard Nixon a presidential pardon two years earlier in 1974. In addition, other economic indicators like unemployment and inflation were affecting voters' approval of Ford.

Eventually, Carter narrowly won the election with 51 percent of the popular vote. While the high March gas prices did not play much of a role in this election, they would become a central issue and a major problem for Carter four years later.

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