Don't forget: Every Monday, I send out "Data Digest", a premium subscriber-only roundup of the data points you need for the week.
There's no sugar coating it: gas prices are ugly these days. As of press time, AAA's national average of gas prices says you'll pay around $4.21 per gallon if you fill up today, very much up from $2.88 just one year ago. (If you're in California, it's much worse than that.)
When voters are asked what their top concerns are, cost of living has been the big issue as of late. Even when COVID-19 cases were spreading like wildfire during the Omicron wave, economic concerns were top-of-mind, and now NBC's latest poll shows cost of living rising is in the clear top spot for voters.
This would seem to be the worst time for any political leader to take action that might send gas prices - one of the biggest contributors to our current inflation problem according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics - ever higher.
At the same time, Americans have spent the last month aghast at the horrifying images of Vladimir Putin's unconscionable attack on Ukraine. Though Americans are reluctant to send troops into direct conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine, they are quite eager to place pressure on Putin in every other possible way. Seize the yachts, sanction the oligarchs, send in the weapons and shut off the flow of Russian oil and gas, they say - even if we have to pay for it at the pump.
That's right: most Americans tell pollsters that they are supportive of a ban on Russian oil. In Monmouth's polling from two weeks ago, a whopping 78% said they'd support such a ban. Impressively, Monmouth finds that at least three-quarters of Republicans, independents, AND Democrats all support this policy. In a highly polarized environment, this kind of unity is astonishing. There's also little difference on this when you look at the data broken out by income level, suggesting this isn't just supported by wealthy people who can most afford it.
Even more notable is the high number of Americans who say they'd support such a move even if it meant paying more in gas prices. Pollsters can sometimes expect a drop in support for a policy if their question makes the costs or downsides clear, but not so much with this issue. Quinnipiac asked "Would you support a ban on Russian oil, if it meant higher gasoline prices in the United States?" and found two-thirds of voters across all partisan groups saying "yes" anyway. The only demographic group that came even close to being divided was younger voters, among whom only 54% said they'd support such a move while 38% opposed it.
Of course, shutting off Russian oil and gas does mean less oil and gas...which does mean higher prices. Republicans are happy to take a whack at Democratic leaders over the fact that American production can't make up the difference. And Democrats turn around to point the finger at oil companies themselves, claiming their record profits are to blame rather than policy choices.
Regardless of who is to blame (either in actuality or in the minds of voters), it remains the case that voters simultaneously say two things:
We are feeling the pinch from higher cost of living, especially gas prices - and we want politicians to do something about it.
We are willing to pay even more for gas if it means pressuring Putin - and we are ok with politicians doing something about it.
But it's one thing for voters to say this in a survey. It's another for them to mean it. So I want to consider, as a pollster, whether or not we should trust what Americans are saying when they respond to a survey saying that they're fine paying more for gas as a result of sanctions.
First, here's the case for why polling might be overstating people's openness to absorbing the costs of fighting Putin.
Complication 1: Social Desirability Bias
In surveys, people like to give the answers they think they "should" give. This doesn't make research impossible, but it means pollsters need to be on guard against over-interpreting results that show people expressing "desired" views. This most prominent example you've probably heard in recent years is the whole idea of "shy Trump voters", the idea that people who were going to vote for Donald Trump might decline to say so to a pollster for fear of that answer being undesirable. While there's considerable debate about the extent to which the "shy Trump voter" phenomenon was significant, it's a good example at least in theory of what social desirability bias looks like.
Doesn't it sound like the right thing to say, that you'd be willing to sacrifice a little bit more to help the people of Ukraine in their fight against tyranny? Sure does. It's one thing to say that you'd hypothetically be willing to pay more for something that sounds virtuous. It's quite another to actually not bristle at the price you pay at the pump when push comes to shove.
Complication 2: Expectations of Future Attitudes
The other issue is that people are, in general, not great at predicting how they'll behave in a future or hypothetical situation. Even if they're not trying to give a "desirable" answer, they might still give an inaccurate read of future attitudes.
Pollsters run into this problem a lot, such as when they ask people if they are "more or less likely to vote for someone" on the basis of some issue position they may or may not have taken yet, or whether someone thinks they are "likely to vote" in an upcoming election. People will often overestimate their own likelihood to vote, or their own likelihood to have their vote swayed by a message or position.
This might also mean people are overestimating their appetite for paying more for gas. There's no cost to saying you'd be OK with paying a buck or two more per gallon when you're asked in a survey. There's very much a cost when you go to fill up.
Reuters/Ipsos tried to solve for this a little by pinning people to a hard number in order to get more clarity. They asked people not just if they'd be willing to pay more, but how much more. They found 63% in their poll say they'd be willing to pay more, but only 11% said they'd be OK paying over $2 more per gallon. More recently, NBC's poll did the same thing; they found a similar percent saying they'd be willing to pay more as well as a similar percent (13%) who claim they'd be willing to pay $2 or more per gallon.
This is valuable for showing that there are some limits to what people would accept, while still having the problem of asking people to respond to a hypothetical.
With all of that said...
I still think there is little likelihood that voters will punish politicians for taking action against Putin - including cutting off oil and gas flows, leading to high prices.
Why? Because high gas prices have been brewing for a while. Yes, gas prices have gotten much worse in recent weeks, but most voters aren't drawing a direct line from the pain they feel at the pump to American sanctions on Russia. Even though Democrats have tried to make the case that profits and Putin are driving the problem (the White House literally put out a fact sheet yesterday on "Putin's Price Hike"), voters view it as a much more multifaceted question.
When asked what they think is driving up cost of living and/or gas prices, Biden administration policies are named much more often as a cause than Russia. NBC's poll found it when asking about inflation generally (38% mostly blame Biden policies, only 6% mostly blame the Ukraine situation), Quinnipiac's poll found it when asking about gas prices specifically (41% mostly blame Biden policies, only 24% mostly blame the Ukraine situation), any my own firm's polling found that when you let people rate a variety of factors, supply chain issues and government spending are more likely to be viewed as a major contributor to the problem than the Ukraine crisis.
All of which is to say: Americans do not like that they're paying so much at the pump, but they believe their pain is being caused by a variety of factors besides Vladimir Putin. And while they might overstate their willingness to absorb more personal economic sacrifice for the good of freedom and democracy abroad, voters probably wouldn't punish leaders over a Russian oil and gas shutdown so long as those leaders are focused in other ways on trying to alleviate the strain of rising cost of living.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. Do you think people would actually be OK with paying more for gas in the fight against Putin's forces? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
You can also catch my weekly radio show, "The Trendline", on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. Channel 124 airing Saturdays at 10 AM Eastern. This week's guests: Patrick Murray of the Monmouth poll + Kurt Couchman of AFP on the President's budget proposal.
(Cover Photo: Getty Images/Alexey Druzhinin/AFP)