Fueling Perception: How Falling Gas Prices Could Shake Up American Politics

Move over Ebola, immigration, and Ferguson. It’s time to talk about another story that could shake up American politics — the rapidly falling gas prices across the country. NBC’s Janet Shamlian reported on “Nightly News” last night that oil prices have fallen 34% since June, a five-year low. And that has dropped the national average for gas prices to $2.70. As CNBC has noted, lower gas prices mean more savings for consumers, as well as an increase in GDP. So how does this impact American politics? It’s possible — though hardly a certainty — that lower gas prices over a sustained period of time finally begin to change the public’s perception about the U.S. economy. After all, the economy has produced 200,000-plus jobs in each of the past nine months; GDP for the last quarter was revised up to a healthy 3.9%; and the unemployment rate has declined from 7.0% in Nov. 2013 to 5.8% now. But many Americans haven’t been FEELING that improvement, due in large part to wages not keeping up with the cost of living. Indeed, our NBC/WSJ poll last month found just 23% of Americans describing their financial situation as getting ahead, while 29% said they were slipping backward or falling behind. But a plurality (48%) said they were staying where they currently are. Could falling gas prices change that perception? Or will they become the latest economic data the public shrugs off? Well, it looks like we’re about to find out.

It’s easier to read the price at the pump vs. the monthly jobs report

Politically, an improving economy helps the president and his party. (It also makes it harder to say the health-care law has stifled the economy.) And in macroeconomic terms, lower gas prices serve as a kind of economic stimulus — which Congress doesn’t have to pass or finance. Yet more importantly, they’re an easier way for Americans to ASSESS the state of the economy. The monthly jobs report might not mean a thing to them, but they can see when it costs just $35 to $40 to fill up their tank each week when it used to cost $50. But while lower gas prices are a positive for most Americans, they’re not good news for the energy-producing states of North Dakota and Texas, whose economies have been benefiting from $100-per-barrel oil. And for states that rely heavily on high energy prices for their state revenues, well, the lower oil/gas prices could be a problem. They’re already having an impact on Louisiana and Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The Democrats’ problem with white working-class voters

Earlier this week, our friend Charlie Cook made a great point: While Republicans are struggling with minority voters, Democrats have a problem with working-class whites. In the 2014 midterms, they made up 36% of all voters, and they broke Republican, 64%-34%. Yes, long-term demographic trends are in the Democrats’ favor — the minority population in this country is growing and growing. But ask yourself what is more likely in the immediate future: Republicans winning Minnesota and Wisconsin in presidential contests, or Democrats winning Arizona and Georgia. You’ve got to go with the former, right? In 20 years, with the country’s growing Latino population, the presidential map appears tilted toward the Democrats. But in the short term, the Democrats could find problems in states with lots of white voters.

Ted Cruz vs. Rand Paul on foreign policy

Despite the initial perception — especially when Ted Cruz joined Rand Paul in his filibuster on drones — the two Republicans have a very different emphasis when it comes to foreign policy. And that was evident in dueling remarks they gave yesterday. Here was Cruz, per National Journal: “America needs to retake its role as world leader, Ted Cruz says, and he is available to lead the charge.” In his speech, Cruz said the U.S. policy toward Russia should be even more stick than carrot, and he argued that if the U.S. really wants to defeat and destroy ISIS, then the U.S. would be using American soldiers on the ground. Compare that with Rand Paul’s remarks at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO event yesterday: “I want less, McCain wants more [military intervention],” Paul said. “He wants 15 countries more, 15 wars more.” By the way, Jeb Bush spoke about U.S.-Cuba relations yesterday. “I would argue that, instead of lifting the embargo, we should consider strengthening it,” he said, per the Miami Herald.

Here comes the oppo on Ben Carson

As one of us (!) wrote yesterday, Dr. Ben Carson is getting some buzz for coming in second place (after a probably-definitely-not-actually-running Mitt Romney) in a hypothetical 2016 Republican field, per a CNN poll. It’s worth noting that Carson’s popularity may be more about his FOX News contract than his policy positions; in fact, two of the four Republicans with the highest popularity scores in our latest NBC News/ WSJ poll were regular personalities on the cable channel. But where there’s a “surge” — such as it is — there’s also oppo. And it’s coming from the right. Some conservative/libertarian publications are questioning his credentials, particularly on gun rights. See here, here, and here.

Did Democrats abandoning Landrieu turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy?

By now, you know that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is the huge underdog to Republican Bill Cassidy in Saturday’s Senate runoff in Louisiana. But we have to ask the question: Did national Democrats’ decision to abandon Landrieu turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Yes, the math for Landrieu — after getting 42% in the free-for-all “jungle primary” — is tough. But remember Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) surprising runoff victory in June? Many thought national Republicans would give up on his race after he finished second in the original primary – and looked like a goner in the runoff. But they stuck by Cochran, and he pulled off a victory. Yes, Cochran’s opponent was deeply flawed. And, yes, his win was the exception to the runoff rule for an incumbent. But he never would have pulled off the surprise had national Republicans abandoned him.

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