Unfettered access to facts and figures must surely equate to a more informed electorate… right?
Not so. On the contrary, the speed and ease with which people now transmit information—accurate and otherwise—has triggered an abundance of confusion and a shortage of clarity amongst everyday Americans. When it comes time to elect our officials, voters are inundated with information and often compelled to rely on shorthand variables to make their decisions.
Whereas some voters use air quality as a metric for environmental health, others will use military power as a metric for national security. But does the size of a country’s military arsenal really correlate to the safety of its people—the taxpayers who fund these military efforts? Although it is tempting to use one metric to examine the impact of a president’s performance within a specific policy area, voters have a responsibility to dig a little deeper. Because voters often base their decisions in midterm and off-year elections on one or two variables, it is essential to ask two questions before assigning any value to them. So, what does this two-question process look like? Let’s take a look using the hot-button issue of gas prices as our example.
Question 1: To what extent (if any) does the metric accurately serve as a barometer?
A simple google search of gas prices and the extent to which they are a good barometer reveals a consensus among experts that higher gas prices are associated with a struggling economy because paying more at the pump drives prices up for the companies (and consumers) who rely on transportation and logistics chains. While this confirms that there is a link between gas prices and the economy, it is still important to understand the extent of that connection. Typically, gas prices do not appear in the top 10 data points that reflect the status of the economy; employment numbers, consumer spending, housing sales and industrial production rates are all more important factors.
Question 2: Does the President have control over the metric?
Gas prices are set by the laws of international supply and demand. While the United States is a very influential country, its efforts to affect global supply and demand are limited. At the time that Russia first invaded Ukraine, gas prices were around $3.60 a gallon. After they surged to over $4 a gallon in March of this year, President Biden used most of the tools in his policy kit and withdrew 15 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Yet, oil and gas prices continued to climb, topping $5 nationally in mid-June.
In addition to considering the impact of the incumbent’s policies on gas prices, it is helpful to look at history. Given that many voters use gas prices to examine the overall performance of the president, one would think that if presidents had the ability to reduce gas prices, they would exercise that power. Yet every president since 2000 has left office with gas prices higher than when their term began. In spite of the fact that Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden tried to lower gas prices, their efforts were ineffective.
While a correlation between high gas prices and weak economies does exist, conclusive evidence of causation does not. Even if causation was a certainty, voters still should not use it as the sole barometer of a president’s impact on the economy because there are many other variables that experts consider stronger indicators. What it comes down to is that the president—regardless of party—has very little control over the global supply and demand of oil.
The short answer to the question of using shorthand variables? Dig deeper.