By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Even as President Barack Obama considers using U.S. oil stockpiles to halt rising gasoline costs in an election year, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday shows economic pain at the pump is not a big concern for voters.
Fuel and gas prices ranked last among 10 factors that influence voters in evaluating Obama's job performance and the country's direction, the poll found. Healthcare, the economy and jobs top the list, with gas prices also lagging behind foreign policy, immigration and education.
"Gas prices, relative to the rest of this stuff, are much less important," Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson said.
"People talk a lot about how gas prices drive attitudes, but it doesn't seem to have a lot of impact either on Obama's job approval or how people see the country going," he said. "People seem to see gas prices as a separate issue the government doesn't have as much control over."
Gasoline prices, which had eased after the national average peaked at $3.94 a gallon in April, have climbed again in the last month and hit an average $3.72 a gallon on Monday.
Worried about high prices, the White House is considering a release of oil reserves from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Reuters reported last week.
The United States and other Group of Eight nations studied a potential oil release in the spring but shelved the plans. Crude oil prices have surged in recent weeks - Brent Crude is closing in on $115 a barrel compared to below $90 a barrel in June - and a U.S. domestic supply shortage also has contributed to the rise.
The release of oil reserves could prevent high crude prices from undermining sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
A POLITICAL GESTURE
But it also would be criticized by Republicans as a political gesture designed to win votes in the November 6 election that pits Obama against Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Romney has attacked Obama's economic leadership and touted his own business record as proof that he can create jobs and turn around a struggling economy. Yet the former governor of Massachusetts has not focused on gasoline prices in the four months since prices topped out.
Even if Romney takes up the issue, voters might not be receptive. The Ipsos poll, taken online between July 1 and August 17, found healthcare and the economy were nearly twice as important to voters as gas prices when they considered Obama's job performance and whether the country was on the right track.
For 26 percent of the poll's respondents, gas prices were a factor in their view of Obama's job performance. Healthcare was a factor in his approval rating for 55 percent of the public, and jobs were a factor for 44 percent.
"People really do seem to understand how little control the president has over the price of gasoline," Jackson said.
"While people may be upset about the price of gas, they realize it may not be something they can blame Obama for directly," he said. "The economy and jobs do seem to be something they think he has more influence over."
Jackson said gas prices could have an impact on the election "at the margins, and since the election is so close even marginal things might end up being important, but it's not one of the major factors."
He said the poll also found little change in views about gas prices since July 1 as prices have risen, but if they climb above $4 a gallon that could shift.
"The $4 a gallon barrier is definitely a much more significant psychological barrier," he said. "If that is breached, it could become more significant."
The precision of the Reuters/Ipsos online poll is measured using a credibility interval. This poll of more than 12,000 Americans had a credibility interval of plus or minus 1.1 percentage points.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Alden Bentley)