Going into Tuesday's Democratic primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, it looked like Hillary Clinton's (and Republican John McCain's) proposed summer gas tax holiday was going to be a big issue.
After all, the price of gas is rising, and likely to rise further as oil keeps trading at close to $120 a barrel, and as the economy has sagged it has become the top issue in the campaign. The two candidates fighting for the Democratic nomination had a clear difference of opinion: Clinton vigorously for, Obama dismissively against.
But it's not at all clear whether it was on the minds of voters, who opted decisively for Barack Obama in North Carolina, and marginally for Clinton in Indiana. Obama has attacked the gas tax holiday as a bit of political pandering, and apparently every economist worth his oil shale agrees. Obama instead suggested investments in new trains, and alternative fuel development long-term strategies that score low on the pandering scale, but high in measurements of reality. It won him the endorsement of the Friends of Earth Action, which until then had presumedly been unable to distinguish much difference between the two candidates on environmental issues.
The 18-cent federal tax wouldn't mean much money for American drivers, would hardly budge gas prices and would only encourage more burning of fossil fuels. In short, it would help squander a natural resource that is in increasingly short supply while pumping carbon dioxide into an atmosphere we've already saturated with greenhouse gases. It would starve the federal government of money it uses to repair and rebuild highways and bridges at a time when the nation's infrastructure is aging. It's not the policy we're looking for.
But did it make a difference in the vote? The answer is elusive, not because the polls were mixed, but because the pollsters didn't ask the question, according to Slate's summary of the morning news.
So, we have the first substantial public policy debate in months surface, an issue that involves the great challenges of the day from energy to global warming to the economy, and a clear difference between the candidates. But no data to tell us whether it mattered.
Recently, pundits have begun expressing the notion that all this campaigning doesn't change the minds of voters. It only hardens the opinions of those who have already made up their minds. Here's another idea: Voters were waiting for a real difference to distinguish one candidate from the other. They got one. The pollsters just didn't ask if it mattered.
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