Approval Ratings for Future Administrations Might Stay Low

by: Chris Bowers

Fri Oct 05, 2007 at 14:07


It isn't discussed often enough, but Professor Pollkatz regularly produces updates one of the most important statistical projections for American politics, ever:



To a very real extent, the business of political strategizing, which I think is my main occupation, is predicated on the notion that strategy is complicated and a lot needs to be written about it. To this end, I have written about two million words on politics over the last four years, or the equivalent of about nine versions of Ulysses by James Joyce. While there is certainly a lot to write about on American politics, it is also true that many of the factors that make the largest difference in American politics are actually both quite simply and fairly immutable from an activist perspective. For example, the price of gasoline has long been connected to Presidential approval ratings, and that was as true under Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton as it is under Bush II.

The price of gas directly affects the lives of most Americans in a way few, if any, other national trends can. If gas costs more relative to median real income, then the economic situation of most Americans becomes immediately worse. If gas costs less relative to median real income, then the economic situation of most Americans becomes immediately better. Our way of life is utterly marinated in oil far more than any other natural resource. It impacts not only the cost of travel, but also the cost of housing, consumer goods, wages, health care, electricity, and even education. Hell, it even affects the price of coffee, which might be the natural resource with the second largest impact on the history of the world over the last five hundred years. And, in the end, there is almost nothing that short term activism can do to change the price of gasoline.

More in the extended entry.

Chris Bowers :: Approval Ratings for Future Administrations Might Stay Low
Many political commentators, including Newt Gingrich, have noted that political realignment has been in the air since Katrina. That is certainly true, as that was the moment when Bush's approval ratings moved under 40% and pretty much stayed there, and the moment when Democrats first took double digit leads in the congressional ballot. Certainly, one of the main reasons for this was the disgust in the country at watching one of our major cities be destroyed while our government provided an inept response. However, another major reason was that Katrina dealt a major blow to the infrastructure of the petroleum industry in America, and briefly led to a major spike in the price of gasoline. And, unlike FEMA, the Bush administration responded swiftly to try and stave off the political realignment this disaster held. From August 21st, 2005:

The Bush administration Wednesday said it would release oil from a special federal reserve to help refiners hurt by Hurricane Katrina. The announcement relieved some pressure in oil markets, but gasoline prices kept soaring Thursday, and spot shortages developed.

The decision to let companies request oil from the government's 700-million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve came after Katrina knocked out 95% of crude oil production in the gulf. More than a dozen gulf refineries are closed or operating below capacity, and oil rigs, pipelines and ports are down.

High gas prices helped put Democrats in power in 2006, even though an unsurprising drop in gas prices in September and October of 2006 connected to a second release of petroleum reserves in the spring of 2006 helped Republican mitigate much of the damage the elections could have caused to their hold on power.

Short-term, Democrats look poised to take a substantial trifecta in D.C. and most states in 2008. Long-term, however, gas prices will never return to the levels of the late 1990's that helped fuel sky-high approval ratings for President Clinton. Further, conservatives still have a strangehold on the oil industry worldwide (Hugo Chavez as an obvious exception).  Our move off the petroleum economy is still slow, and will even take decades under an extremely aggressive Apollo style renewable energy program. So, in short, there is no reason to expect that future administrations will have approval ratings dramatically better than those currently enjoyed by both Bush and Congress. Ending the war will help, and providing millions of people with health care will help, too. However, gas prices will still remain high, making approval ratings in the 40s and 50s about the best anyone can do even under the most favorable conditions until at least 2020.

The days of super popular administrations, ala the fourth, fifth and sixth years of Reagan, and like the final five years of Clinton, are probably over for the foreseeable future. As a country, if not as a world, we will be heading toward a regression, or at least a plateau, in terms of our personal well-being. And this isn't going to make people very happy. The only way it will get better long term is if the progressive movement is able to take power and institute real changes to our energy policy that will take us off the petroleum economy, or if a crypto-fascist movement takes charge in America and starts conducting several Iraq style wars in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East to even more overtly and explicitly to capture a larger percentage of the world's oil reserves. There really isn't a middle ground solution that will stave off a major regression by the second quarter of the current century, as cap and trade and symbolic gestures toward renewable energy investment just won't do the trick. Further, even capturing a larger percentage of the world's oil reserves through direct military force not only won't stop global warming, but will actually accelerate it, which is set to cause a major regression in human civilization in about two or three decades. A not insignificant percentage of the world's population, possibly higher than World War Two, could die through a combination of peak oil and continued global warming. When energy and food production both begin to decline, we will really be in for a literal world of hurt.

It may not be as bad as all that, but things are not going to be getting much better for the world in the short term. Approval ratings for all politicians will remain pretty low as a result. If a Democrat manages to get re-elected to a second term as President in 2012, it will be a major accomplishment. More than any other resource, our world runs on oil. By releasing large amounts of it into our atmosphere, and by eventually using up half of existing reserves, human civilization could change more dramatically than at any other period in history. And that will cause a political realignment unto itself.


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Overrated (0.00 / 0)
The relationship between presidential approval and gas prices is overhyped.  Once you control for other factors the correlation is not as strong as the graph suggests. Also, the relationship between pres. approval and gas prices was not "as true under Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton as it is under Bush II." It was actually much weaker in some of these previous administrations:

There's no precedent for this tight relationship. Approval ratings for Clinton and Reagan were mildly influenced by gas prices, but Bush 41's seems not to have been at all. That may mean that the gas-dependency of W's popularity may actually be a reflection of other things . . .


Cool (0.00 / 0)
Thanks for the link! More info is always appreciated.

[ Parent ]
biofuels and other alternatives moderate gas prices (4.00 / 1)
I see gas prices rising to about $5, and then staying there for the foreseeable future.  This price sanity helps all alternatives become more attractive, and spurs (and is spurring) investment.  Once this plateau is hit, and pricing statis occurs, political approval and gas prices will no longer be so tightly coupled.  Feelings of scarcity will start to dissipate, and crude oil futures markets will be tied to vegetable oil futures (and which is much less volatile if fuel prices are constant).  I've heard from numerous farmers growing biofuels not to save money, but to allow them to quote long-term contracts without the risk that fuel prices will rise.  Their prices are fixed if they grow their own fuel.

Why do I think biofuels will start to moderate price swings of gasoline, and cap them somewhere around $5.00/gallon?  Well, biofuels production is currently competitive at about $3.75/gallon, or $4.00 without subsidies, and are currently operating on razor-thin profit margins (first-hand info).  As the price of oil continues to rise, the price of biofuel production does go up slightly as tractors, steel, etc., go up in price, but it won't get above much more than $5/$6 before most anyone can profitably grow and/or make their own biofuels.  Biofuels from South America and Africa, the new cash crop, is easier to store and transport than tea, coffee, or tobacco, and there is a huge cottage industry forming down there.

20 years is a long time.  The average life of cars is about 14 years, so all vehicles will be replaced and then replaced again in that time frame.  As electric vehicles increase in usage, more pressure is taken off gas prices.  Electric and hybrid vehicles are economical now and just starting mass production (albeit by Toyota and Tesla, not GM or Ford... sigh).

Residential gas consumption is only part of the picture, though.  Look for some rude airline price increases as carriers like Southwest start paying more than $0.45/gallon when their contracts run out in a few years.  Bunker oil still sells for about $1.00/gallon.  These price rises will also help alternatives be more competitive.

Gas is currently $5.25 CDN= $5.25 US up north), and somehow, they still approve of their government more than we approve of ours.  Europe, too, with $6/gallon gas.

For the full picture (literally!), check this out:

Look for biofuels to double from the "current" (data is 5 years old) 3.2 quads in the next decade, then double again to perhaps 12 quads in 20 years.  This will be enough to offset reduced crude oil imports, and electric/hybrid car replacement keeping out need for oil about constant (rather than rising with the population increase).  It still won't be sustainable -- the oil will have to run out first -- but it'll be enough to ward off catastrophe (sorry, peak oilers with visions of a crash).  An Apollo-style program is still needed for global warming reasons: just because we can keep from crashing, doesn't mean all's well and good.

end the occupation of Iraq


Gas prices alone won't do it (0.00 / 0)
But I do think you are basically right that things aren't going to get much better even after the war ends (if it does) and sanity returns to government (if it does), and people aren't going to be much happier unless they reorient their thinking away from consumption.  Having a Dem is marginally better, but I don't see FDR-type leadership emerging yet.  Maybe Gore in 2012 or even 2016, if it isn't too late.

That was a very cool graph, aip.

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.


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