Holiday on Ice: What North Carolina and Indiana tell us about future oil and climate policy

For nearly 2 months now, Senator Clinton has been outperforming the closing polls in primary state after primary state. And no one can possibly say that Senator Obama had a good past three weeks, with the reemergence of Reverend 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, 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 “Gas tax holiday, Part 3: It is cynical and indefensible no matter who proposes it.”

Clinton proposed the gas tax holiday Monday April 28, eight days before the two primaries. So what happened among late-deciding voters? Here is the answer, based on CBS’s exit poll numbers (overview here, Indiana here, North Carolina 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% to 44% (a 31,000 vote margin). In Indiana, Clinton took those voters, 56% to 44% (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 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 worth reprinting:

Even before Wright’s press club appearance, Obama had been hitting presumptive Republican nominee John McCain for his proposal to temporarily suspend the 18-cent federal gas tax. When Clinton embraced the “gas tax holiday,” Obama’s aides became convinced that a tailor-made issue had fallen into his lap, an issue that could change the subject.

Obama and Axelrod talked that Sunday and agreed that the gas tax holiday was the perfect vehicle to reintroduce Obama as the responsible reformer who refused to pander, even with a presidential election on the line.

By the time he took the stage at an 18,000-person rally in Chapel Hill on Monday night, he had sketched out his basic argument. “Gas tax holiday — sounds good. I’m sure it polls well.” But he added, “That’s just politics of the moment, politics to get you through the next election. We need better leadership than that.”

Obama’s opposition may have been high-minded, but it was risky for a candidate already struggling for working-class support. Campaign officials insist they did no polling on the issue before Obama staked out his stance, although it was tested heavily after the fact, in polls and focus groups. Campaign officials said the results from those surveys did not ring any alarms, although as Obama began adding references to his $1,000 middle-class tax cut proposal later in the week, to show voters he was offering a much better deal.

“The principle certainly preceded any polling, but the polling supported the principle,” said Butts, the domestic policy adviser. “Good policy is good politics in this situation.”

On Tuesday, Clinton aired her first ad that criticizes Obama for rejecting the gas tax holiday, and Obama advisers began debating an appropriate response. Jim Margolis, the campaign’s media strategist, was screening some generic footage he had shot of Obama on Monday — including the gas tax riff that he introduced in Wilmington, and polished throughout the day.

“As soon as we all heard it, we thought, ‘We can’t do better than that,’ “ Axelrod said. “Let him do the talking.”

The issue ignited quickly, and primary voters were not the only Democrats paying attention. Sen. Evan Bayh, Clinton’s most effective Hoosier weapon, had been leaning hard on his state’s four freshman House Democrats, urging them to stay out of the race until the voters had spoken — even though he was leading the Clinton charge. Obama aides were convinced that they would pick up the endorsement of Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a popular former sheriff from the expected Clinton stronghold around Evansville. But Ellsworth did not come through, nor did Rep. Joe Donnelly, whose Democrat-rich district stretches through the state’s heartland, south from South Bend.

But Rep. Baron P. Hill, a southern Indianan from Clinton country, had been listening to the gas tax debate closely. He spoke with each of his district’s 20 Democratic country chairs. He was impressed by the surge of support among students at Indiana University, a fixture of his district. Most important, he spoke repeatedly with former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, who co-chaired the Sept. 11 Commission and who is backing Obama.

Obama not only picked up Hill’s endorsement, but also won Hoosier and former Democratic Party chairman Joe Adrew from Clinton’s column, giving his Wright recovery a boost. Both superdelegates cited Obama’s opposition to the tax holiday as a factor. Congressional leaders endorsed his position, and editorial boards hailed the Obama stance as principled and farsighted. The issue was featured prominently in a two-minute closing ad that the Obama campaign aired in North Carolina and Indiana.

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 Senator McCain, and an Obama presidency, should he win.


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 US action on global warming after the election is not that great. Without the US, 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.