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Commentary: The supply and demand of gasoline politics

By John Thompson
For the Salisbury Post
RALEIGH ó At the turn of the 20th century, oil prospectors risked life and limb, driven by the hope of tasting “Texas Tea.” As North Carolinians’ wallets get drilled at the gas pump, our choice for president and governor might come as a result of weighing which candidate offers the best prospect of hope for relief in the current energy crisis.
Eight out of 10 Americans now call rising gas prices a financial burden, with those from lower-income households particularly apt to feel the pinch, according to the Washington Post. Many North Carolina voters no doubt feel the same way.
Perhaps hoping for a political win while offering relief to cash-strapped voters, Democratic and Republican wildcat wells are going up all over the floor of the U.S. Congress, prospecting for a solution to the high cost of gas in everything from a 25 percent windfall tax on major oil companies to launching arctic and coastal drilling. But is this flurry of plans and proposals from inside the Beltway too little too late in the eyes of voters?
And how might high gas prices translate into voter preferences at the polls in North Carolina?
“People tend to be motivated to vote when they are upset,” says Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at N.C. State University. “Poor economic conditions obviously motivate people to want change in government.”
Any campaign manager worth his salt is acutely aware of the political pitfalls and potential that come with angry voters. But according to Dick Morris, a political commentator and former advisor to President Bill Clinton, while gas prices are shaping up to be a key issue in the 2008 elections, both parties are “pathetic in their understanding of what is going on.”
What is going on seems to be a perfect economic storm brought on by oil-futures speculation, a weak dollar and instability in certain key petroleum-producing countries, among other factors. The result is $4-per-gallon gasoline and an agitated electorate with just over three months before Election Day.
Senators Barack Obama and John McCain are jockeying to be seen as the candidate best capable of offering relief for the nation’s gas grief. Which of the two could suffer the most at the polls because of high prices at the pump?
On the one hand, McCain’s party holds the White House with an unpopular, lame duck administration seen as closely tied to the oil industry. On the other hand, Obama’s party controls the U.S. Congress, now suffering from rock-bottom approval ratings, which Morris says could be bad news for the Illinois senator.
“Every time Americans gas up, they are reminded that the Democrats’ refusal to allow oil drilling virtually anyplace has caused the long-term escalation in oil prices in the United States,” Morris says.
Even if Morris is correct in his analysis, ironically McCain may benefit little since he has been adamantly opposed to any new drilling. In fact both candidates are “not that far apart when it comes to increasing domestic oil drilling; both oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” according to a report in the Phoenix Business Journal in June of this year.
The gas crunch has spilled into North Carolina’s tight race for the governor’s mansion, with Democrat Bev Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory splitting on whether to explore offshore drilling along the state’s coast.
The thought of oil rigs dotting the coastal horizon may prove unappetizing to many voters ó especially those down east ó which could mean a boost for Perdue, who opposes any such move.
Other voters, however, may warm to McCrory’s pro-drilling position, especially if they stop to fill up on the way to the polls.
– – –
John Thompson is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.

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