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Do High Gas Prices Help Obama?

If Mark Halperin says so, it must be the conventional wisdom — but I’m not sold.

It probably cannot be debated that economic turmoil in general helps the Democratic candidate — but gas prices carry a particular symbolic weight that may reframe the issue in ways favorable to the Republican.

For one thing, there are the specific remedies that McCain has proposed: a reduction in the gas tax and a relaxation of the moratorium on offshore drilling. The former is a mixed bag electorally — Obama did an admirable job of arguing the issue in the primaries — but the latter is probably worth something to McCain. Offshore drilling polls well, and while the Obama campaign has some good arguments to make about its lack of connection to near-term gas prices, it has not really been devoting sufficient bandwidth to the economy to make them.

Secondly, while both candidates have placed some attention to the inexorably linked issues of climate change and energy security, for McCain the emphasis has been energy security / climate change, whereas for Obama it has been climate change / energy security. High gas prices may reduce the public’s tolerance for seeing reductions in greenhouse gases as a moral and generational imperative (and a long-run economic imperative) and instead favor a more pragmatic approach that purports to lower gas prices first and ask questions later.

Thirdly, in what is arguably a reversal from the usual Democratic / Republican positions, Obama has run a far more optimistic campaign — and that messaging may go over less well when people are grumpy about what they’re paying at the pump.

Now, I think the Obama campaign could win the argument over high gas prices. But I don’t know that they are winning it, and as such, that gives McCain some openings on the economy that he might lack otherwise.

* Let me also make clear: I think too much attention is paid to the price of gas as opposed to other commodities.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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