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Is America headed in the right direction? Well, what does gas cost?

In the abstract, it seems like perhaps the broadest possible question one could ask about American politics: Is the country headed in the right direction or is it on the wrong track? It’s like giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down on Netflix. Do you like what America’s up to or not?

Because it’s so broad, it seems like a pretty good thermometer for the state of the nation. News stories often cite the results, particularly when they’re gloomy: Americans, you’ve heard one or two times, are pessimistic about the direction of the country.

But there are a few important things to understand about that metric generally — and one very important thing to understand about it in the moment.

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The first thing to know is that Americans are almost always more likely to say the country is headed in the wrong direction than on the right track. If we look at the net results of YouGov’s asking the question since the beginning of 2009, you see that the net result — that is, the percentage saying that the country’s on the right track minus those saying it’s headed in the wrong direction — is consistently in negative territory. It’s just the depth of the pessimism that tends to change.

The second thing to notice is that the answer is heavily dependent on political party. When Barack Obama was president, Democrats were a lot more likely to say the country was headed in the right direction. Republicans assessed the nation’s path as dire. And then Donald Trump won.

Nearly instantly, partisan views changed. In YouGov’s poll just before the election, most Democrats said the country was heading in the right direction while only 1 in 12 Republicans said the same. By Trump’s inauguration, most Republicans said the country was headed in the right direction while only 1 in 10 Democrats agreed.

Then President Biden won and the whole thing flipped again. Among independents, you’ll note, the pattern is less pronounced. As is often the case, views of nonpartisans generally track with the overall numbers, since independents are the flag in the middle of the tug-of-war rope.

I highlighted a section of a Democratic graph with a gray box. That period shows how declines in partisan sentiment can affect the overall figure. In early 2011, Democrats grew more negative about the direction of the country and, as a result, the tug-of-war rope moved: The overall view of the direction of the country also sank. Among Republicans, who were already pessimistic because a Democrat was in the White House, there really wasn’t anywhere to go.

Bear that situation in mind as we look at the pattern of views of the country under Biden. As you’d expect, Democrats are more positive and Republicans more negative.

I’ve again highlighted certain parts of the Democrats’ graph. Those are three apparent inflection points in which views of the country’s direction shifted among members of Biden’s party.

The first was the beginning of a long downward slide in early- to mid-July 2021. This corresponds to a new surge in coronavirus cases nationally as a result of the emergence of the Delta variant. The pandemic seemed as though it was evaporating … and then it wasn’t.

Then there’s the trend that began in mid-April, reversing two months ago. What prompted the downward trend? What drove the turnaround?

If asked, the White House would probably tell you that new legislation Biden signed into law made the difference. But it’s probably simpler: gas prices. The average national prices per gallon increased 50 cents from mid-February to mid-April. They peaked in mid-June.

As it turns out, there was a similar spike in gas prices in early 2011, when the price jumped 50 cents between November 2010 and March 2011. Right as views of the country’s direction among Democrats dropped.

You can see the effect below. At top is the price of gas. Below, the net view of the direction of the country — with the inverted gas price overlaid for reference.

On the lower chart above, you can see gas prices rise (the gray line heading down) just as there was a big drop in views of how the country was faring. You can see the same thing at the right side of the graph — and how the quick turnaround in gas prices overlaps with a quick rise in optimism about the national direction.

It’s not only gas prices that drive sentiment, of course. In 2020, Republican confidence in the direction of the country sagged thanks to the pandemic and the emergence of protests focused on police reform.

But gas prices appear to have played a role in affecting how Democrats viewed the country during the first terms of the two most recent Democratic presidents. The other trends still exist — the partisan divide, the general pessimism — but if gas prices continue to fall? Suddenly Democrats are facing a different midterm than the one that was looming this spring.

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