It's the Gas Prices, Stupid
During Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” It was meant to remind the future president to stay focused on the issue that was foremost on voters’ minds and to keep him from wandering off into the weeds of complicated side issues. Mitt Romney and other Republicans need to adopt this simplified, focused strategy in Ohio and other crucial swing states.
Just as in 1992, the economy tops the list of voter concerns. One way Republican candidates are addressing this concern is to attack President Obama’s “war on coal.” Last week the House passed the “Stop the War on Coal Act” (H.R. 5409), authored by Republican Bill Johnson, who is in a tough race against former congressman Charlie Wilson in southern Ohio. This week the Romney campaign is releasing a pair of “war on coal” ads to focus on the problem of lost mining jobs and diminishing coal power capacity.
Certainly, these are vital, pressing issues that our country cannot afford to ignore. But we are a month and a half out from the election and this series of public service announcements attempting to educate voters about the dangers of the “war on coal” is a tough sell when the "war on coal" hasn’t yet impacted the lives of the majority of Ohioans. In Ohio, like other coal mining states, mining is a regional issue, so layoffs in the coal industry don’t have an immediate, statewide ripple effect. In addition, only 18% of Ohioans heat their homes with electricity, minimizing the perception that closing coal plants will cause them a financial hardship. Yet Romney and other Republicans seem to be putting a lot of their eggs into this niche basket.
Obama has taken a different approach. Whatever you think of President Obama, it’s undeniable that he plays to win. Though he has promised strict new environmental regulations on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil and gas, they will not be implemented until after the election. As a result, there has been a fracking boom and natural gas prices have plummeted:
It's time to party like its 2002 if you're a consumer of natural gas, as the fossil fuel dropped below $2 for the first time in a decade. ... This is a 59 percent drop from the $4.85 price natural gas enjoyed last summer. The price of the hydrocarbon has been pushed down by a sharp increase in production in the U.S. over the past few years. This is in large part attributable to the hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- boom.
The Republican strategy to warn voters about the impending coal crisis has been largely neutralized by Obama’s clever delay on fracking regulations (sure to magically reappear after the first of the year). Mitt Romney and the rest of the GOP candidates need to get out of the weeds of the “war on coal.” It's time to stop wandering off into the details of retrofitting coal plants and quit arguing about global warming — there’s no time for that at this point in the campaign. Republicans need a simple message that will resonate with every voter in every precinct in every state.
In short: It’s the gas prices, stupid.
The average American family burns through 1,100 gallons of gasoline a year, so the $2.00+ increase in the price of a gallon of gas since Obama has been in office now costs a family more than $2,000 every year. According to the Brookings Institution, the skyrocketing gas prices disproportionately hurt low- and moderate-income families because for those families, gas isn’t a luxury item they can cut from their budgets. They must instead cut other family expenses:
Since low- and moderate-income families spend most of their income on average, in the very short run they can only choose between spending less on other items and going further into debt.
In addition to the direct costs consumers pay at the pump, the prices of nearly everything that relies on the supply chain have been affected. Mike Jarrett is president of Jarrett Logistics Systems in Orrville, Ohio. His company specializes in transportation management services for manufacturing companies, wholesalers, and distributors. He explained the relationship between fuel prices and consumer goods.
We are contracting with carriers that are on a fuel schedule with us, so when there’s an increase in fuel, that in turn increases the fuel surcharge to us, which is obviously passed on. So it does affect the total landed cost to the customer. The higher the fuel, the higher the landed cost.
Jarrett said that he checks the Department of Energy’s average fuel price, published every Monday, to determine the fuel surcharge for his customers. He explained that consumers don’t always realize the hidden fuel costs in the prices of items in stores.
We pass that fuel surcharge on to our customer, so then it does make its way to the consumer. And again, that fluctuation and that cost has to be built into the cost of the product. Let’s say it’s a consumer goods item that goes to the shelf of the store. When a customer goes to buy it off the shelf of the store, it doesn’t say the cost of the loaf of bread is “this much plus fuel.” It just has the cost of the loaf of bread.
Jarret also owns PackShip USA, a company that specializes in packing and shipping of fragile and high-value merchandise. He said that fuel prices have a more widespread effect on the economy.
If their disposable income is less because they had to spend more to fill up their tank of gas, then they’re probably not going to buy as many products -- in our case, furniture. That’s how economies stay stagnant. People are spending more on items they have to have. If you’re someone who has to drive your vehicle back and forth to work, you have to buy gas. And if you have to buy gas and it costs you more to do that, you’re going to have less disposable income to buy other things.
So the high gas prices are not only hurting American families at the gas pump and in the increased prices of nearly everything they purchase, but also in the weakening of the economy because a higher percentage of the family income must be spent on gas. The "war on coal" is too small a target. This is a "war on families" and a "war on the poor."
24/7 Wall St. has a list of states where people can’t afford gas, and perhaps not surprisingly, five of the top ten are swing states in the upcoming election: North Carolina, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, and Florida.
Gas prices cause people to postpone vacations and defer daily expenses. Construction companies will suspend some of their activities. Businesses that deliver goods to homes or other businesses will try to raise their prices to offset their costs of transportation. Some of the states on this list barely made it out of the recession, if they did at all. Some still have double digit unemployment and high poverty levels. The sharp rise in gas prices becomes more severe each day. This is something that a portion of the population simply cannot afford.
This issue should be a slam-dunk for Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican team. While the high price of gas cannot be blamed entirely on President Obama, he clearly hasn’t made it a priority of his administration. President Clinton infamously said, “I feel your pain.” President Obama has insulated himself from the lives of ordinary Americans and is ignoring the elephant-in-the-room issue that is breaking family budgets across the country. Pain at the pump cuts across racial and demographic lines and even traverses party lines. In fact, this is an issue that has the ability to “Slap the Honey Boo Boos with Truthaganda,” as PJ Media’s Zombie so eloquently suggested here recently. Republicans should be shouting from the rooftops about the gas pump misery index.
Most of all, this issue could sway the all-important undecided voters. Every price sign at every gas station across the country could be viewed as a “Vote Romney” sign if Mitt would focus on this issue and convince voters that he does “feel their pain” and he intends to do something about it on the first day of his presidency.
This could be the issue that puts Romney and his fellow Republicans over the top in important battleground states like Ohio. But it's imperative that they keep the message simple and focused.
See more of Paula Bolyard's reports from Ohio this election season: