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Which political force is more powerful: gas prices or optimism?

February 24, 2012 | 12:45 pm

Pump prices
The 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be a race between consumer confidence and gas prices.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers reported Friday the sixth straight monthly improvement in public sentiment. According to my colleague Jim Puzzanghera in Washington,  optimism about the U.S. economy increased despite survey respondents' sense that their own prospects wouldn't improve this year.

That's a fascinating divergence, suggesting that people are expecting a modest economic recovery instead of a dramatic turnaround.

Against that backdrop, Republican presidential candidates in general and Newt Gingrich in particular have been harping on the high cost of gasoline. No question, prices at the pump are sharply higher today than they were when President Obama took office. But one of the main factors, as The Times' Mike Memoli points out, is the improvement in the global economy -- something Republicans would hardly attribute to Obama's stewardship.

Nevertheless, there's a sharp difference between the GOP and Obama on energy policy, so the Republicans' message about gas prices could resonate with voters. How much they care, though, would seem to depend on how insecure they feel about the future. Rising gas prices are debilitating in bad times but more of an annoyance in good ones.

Therein lies one of the real disadvantages for candidates challenging an incumbent. The essential message of challengers -- "I can do a better job than my opponent has done" -- is based on a fundamentally unhappy premise that things are not good in the world. Or rather, they're based on the fundamentally pessimistic premise that things aren't good and they're getting worse. Voters will stick with incumbents even in bad times when indicators are heading in the right direction.

Granted, candidates can build an up-tempo message on top of that downbeat base. Ronald Reagan's campaign in 1980 is the textbook example, combining sharp criticism of President Carter's leadership with a confident outlook. That's probably why Gingrich, when asked at this week's debate to describe himself in one word, said "Cheerful."

But such a message works best when people don't have to be told how bad off they are. That's a perspective they don't really want to hear. A candidate who has to convince them that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is going to have a much tougher slog than one who can say the worst times are behind us. That's another lesson from Reagan, who faced a higher unemployment rate in 1984 than in his 1980 campaign. He won by focusing attention on the encouraging trends -- "It's morning again in America" --  not the facts of the moment.

For the gas-price issue to be really effective, Republicans have to convince voters that times are bad and not getting better. Right now, the consumer confidence numbers show that a growing number of people don't see things that way.

There's a lot of time left between now and the election, of course. But Republicans are in the awkward position of hoping that the pain at the pump will become unbearable.

By the way, The Times' editorial board noted Thursday that the GOP candidates' favorite solution to higher gas prices -- expanding domestic oil exploration and production -- wouldn't produce a gallon of gas for a decade or more. Obama, at least, can say he helped put more people into more fuel-efficient cars now through large tax credits for newly purchased hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles. And thanks to the increased fuel economy standards his administration pushed automakers to accept, far more high-MPG vehicles will be on the road in the coming years -- long before any new U.S. wells produce their first drums of crude.

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-- Jon Healey

Credit:  Alex Brandon / Associated Press

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