For nearly two months now, Sen. Clinton has been outperforming the closing polls in primary state after primary state. And no one can possibly say that Sen. Obama had a good past three weeks, with the reemergence of Rev. Wright. Yet this time, he outperformed the recent polls in both states.
This suggests that in the only other big issue to rise in the last week of the campaign — the gas tax holiday — Obama did not lose votes taking the principled position. As I (and many others) have blogged, a gas tax holiday would most likely benefit the oil companies more than the the average consumer. Also, it sends a terrible message about future climate policies (namely that some weak-kneed president might roll back carbon prices the first time the economy hit a rough patch after a cap-and-trade system was passed) — see “A gas tax holiday would be cynical and indefensible.”
Clinton proposed the gas tax holiday April 28, eight days before the two primaries. So what happened among late-deciding voters? Here is the answer, based on CBS’ exit poll numbers (overview here):
Twenty-five percent in Indiana and 20 percent in North Carolina decided in the last week.
In North Carolina, Obama took those voters 54 percent to 44 percent (a 31,000 vote margin). In Indiana, Clinton took those voters 56 percent to 44 percent (a 38,000 vote margin), which is not quite as high as her percentage of late deciders in Pennsylvania. So late deciders were pretty much a wash.
Again, I conclude that the gas tax issue did not play very much, if it all, in Hillary’s favor, even though, on the surface, it appears to be a very attractive populist issue.
The story of the last seven days
The Washington Post has a long narrative on the days leading up to the two primaries, “After One of Campaign’s Roughest Patches, Obama Tried to Change the Narrative.” The part on the gas tax is especially interesting.
I tend to think that Clinton may have won the issue slightly on a direct, tactical level but really lost it by much more on a strategic level in that it allowed Obama to get back on message (and it also seems to have hurt her with the superdelegates, which, since they are the party leaders and members of Congress, is good news for future energy/climate policy). Indeed, the Post reported:
Cornell Belcher, an Obama pollster who declined to give out his polling numbers, said: “The whole gas tax thing, it isn’t about whether it’s working in the polls.”
The bottom line is that Obama’s position was not a losing position. That bodes well, I think, for both of the fall campaign against Sen. McCain, and an Obama presidency, should he win.
The view down under
Finally, I was struck by the words of John Quiggin, an Australian economist whose climate writings I admire, in a post from Saturday, “Holiday from Sanity“:
I was pretty much stunned into silence by the proposal for a gasoline tax holiday put forward by John McCain and Hillary Clinton. I won’t bother repeating all the reasons why this is a terrible idea (when Tom Friedman has your number, I’d say your number is up).
Just a couple of observations. First, I find it hard to see how anyone serious can support either McCain or Clinton after this.
Second, the fact that the proposal has lasted this long suggests to me that the chance of any serious U.S. action on global warming after the election is not that great. Without the U.S., we won’t get anything from China and India either, so that means we’re setting course for disaster. Perhaps if Obama wins, he’ll be able to turn this around, but this episode has me very depressed.
So even seemingly small digressions in the U.S. presidential race do get noticed around the world. I hope Quiggin — and others who are working internationally to avoid catastrophic climate impacts — will take some heart from the Tuesday vote. I did.