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Gas prices at a St. Louis-area ConocoPhilips station in... Gas prices at a St. Louis-area ConocoPhilips station in 1996 (Flickr).
Tonight's third and final presidential debate is scheduled to focus on foreign policy. But in doing so, President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney will likely address a decidedly domestic issue – gas prices.

Throughout the fall campaign, Romney has criticized Obama over the increase in gas prices that has occurred over his White House tenure.

That's true. Gas prices did indeed rise over the course of Obama's presidency. At best, however, that charge offers a surface glance at a complex issue. Heading into tonight's debate in Boca Raton, Fla., here's what you need to know:

Today, the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded fuel is $3.67, according to GasBuddy.com. The average has fallen 15 cents in the past month.

On Nov. 4, 2008, Election Day, the national average stood at $2.35 per gallon.

On Jan. 20, 2009, the day of Obama's inauguration, the national average had dropped to $1.82, according to GasBuddy.com.

What you'll hear from neither candidate tonight is that experts agree that the President of the United States doesn't have much control over the price of gas. Global demand drives the price of oil and gasoline.

"The reality is that presidents have very little to do with near-term fluctuations in gasoline prices," Frank Verrastro, the director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said while testifying before a U.S. Senate panel earlier this year.

Richard Thaler, a professor of economics and behavioral science at the University of Chicago says it's "wishful thinking" that either candidate could affect gas prices.

In a survey conducted by his university, 41 economists of varying political views were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: "Changes in U.S. gasoline prices over the past 10 years have predominantly been due to market factors rather than U.S. federal economic or energy policies."

None of the 41 surveyed disagreed.

"Do you believe that they are something a president can control? Many Americans believe that the answer is yes," Thaler wrote in The New York Times. "But any respectable economist will tell you that the answer is no."

Romney's snapshot glance at particular dates disregards the context of gas prices and their increasing volatility throughout the past decade.

When President George W. Bush took office, gas prices averaged $1.45 per gallon. Throughout his eight years in office, the national average to $4.12 per gallon by the summer of 2008, according to GasBuddy.com statistics.

Over Bush's final six months in office, the average plunged on weakening demand and global recession to a low of $1.61 in late December 2008. Under Obama, prices rose to the same mid-$3 level they had seen under Bush, although the national average did not rise above the $4 mark again.

Even though most experts say the president, aside from manipulating the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve normally saved for national defense, has little control over gas prices, voters still look to the candidates to provide leadership on the issue.

Most prefer Obama's energy policy to Romney's according to a poll conducted by the University of Texas. Overall, 37 percent of respondents felt Obama's energy policy was best for the country while 28 percent favored Romney. Thirty-five percent were unsure whose policies they favored.

"While job creation and the economy continue to top the list of concerns, 2 out of 3 consumers say energy issues are important to them," said Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the University of Texas energy poll. "Support for increased production of domestic energy supplies remains strong, and we're also seeing a lot of interest in the promotion of alternative forms of energy and energy-saving technologies that crosses party lines."

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. has increased its production of oil and petroleum 20 percent since 2008. Even with that boost, the domestic production only accounted for 53 percent of the nation's oil and gas consumption.

In the University of Texas poll, respondents favored both candidates who would expand domestic development – and pursue renewable technologies. Sixty-two percent of the 2,092 respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who would increase funding for new energy technologies.

Consumers supported an increase in renewable energy, with 58 percent saying they would be likely to vote for a candidate who supports financial incentives for companies. Forty percent say they support decreasing the use of coal – 46 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      There has never been a president who has control over the fluctuations of gas prices, and there will never be one period! Regardless whether a Democratic , or a Republican president" People should be fully aware of this, and stop putting blame on this president, or any other presidents to come"
        • 2 Years Ago
        Like printing 4 trillion pieces of paper doesnt affect the value of the paper and the price of commoditites iincluding oil?
      • 2 Years Ago
      So easy to bring down the cost of gas! Pass regulation that any oil or gas drilled on public lands, or in the Gulf of Mexico must stay in the USA! No more stealing our natural resources to the highest international bidder! Then you will see gas prices lowered at the pump. Even the pipeline from Canada, you want to bring the oil to Texas, why? To sell to the highest international bidder, so why not build a refinery in Detroit and keep the oil here?
      • 2 Years Ago
      When Clinton vetoed drilling in Anwar, he said it would take ten years to get it online and it wouldn't help gas prices. Ten years later when gas prices were higher, it would have helped. When Obama came in office, he bragged about our highest oil output in history--BUT IT WAS FROM THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION-10 YEARS EARLIER! No credit to Bush.
      • 2 Years Ago
      This report is a little off here. When Bush was still in office, he opened up offshore drilling and the price of oil plumetted down and the price of gas was down to 1.85. When Obama put a halt on offshore drilling the price went right back up. So you cant say a president doesn't have the power to change oil prices!!!!
        • 1 Year Ago
        No I disagree, the price of oil dropped to almost $30 a barrel when the markets crashed and the recession began and stocks were like it use to be and the greediness wasn't there. It dropped like a rock over night. Now that the GREED is back this is where we stand today and one more city is filling bankruptcy as we speak. Obama has hurt us more than any other president has ever done.
      • 2 Years Ago
      That didn't stop the Democrats from screaming about Bush when prices got high. If a president cancels drilling leases and stops offshore drilling prices for crude get higher--Period! When govt prints money and inflation is coming, people buy OIL AND GOLD that keep pace with inflation so it raises the price of crude, that's why it's staying high for so long. So this author is either stupid or scamming for Obama.
      • 1 Year Ago
      You know I disagree on the president and the price control. They could have put a price freeze on the stuff like they did natural gas here in West Virginia several years ago and it would have stood up. They let these big corporate greedy a-holes drive up the price when it was not needed. They gouged us to the point that we don't know what to expect from day to day. They have destroyed the economy to start off with. If it wasn't for the high gas prices then we would be better off today but Bush and now Obama let them run all over us like it's our fault that the war started. Hell they were the ones to get it started letting trash come over here and destroying tall buildings and terrorizing the United States. If they would do what's right and drill for oil here on US Soil then we would see a dramatic drop in gas prices only if we keep it over here instead of selling it to the foreign countries and buying it back which is absurd. We need a president to understand this and do away with the EPA concerning oil drilling on land. I am tired of being broke. Back in 1994 I was doing better at $6 dollars an hour than what I am at almost $13 now, because gas was dirt cheap, our utilities wasn't outrageous like it is today. Heck just 12 years the highest electric bill I had was no more than $35 a month and I got my bill yesterday and it is at $266 and own the same house. PATHETIC Yes PATHETIC. Enough said Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama. Thank you for making my life a living hell.
      • 2 Years Ago
      So when are the automakers going to produce and sell cars that run on natural gas? It is fairly simple to convert gasoline engines to run on natural gas but I suppose the speculators and suppliers would run the prices up so high that half the seniors in the country would freeze to death in the winter. Oh wait --mission acomplished!