Filling the tank of his Honda Accord, Daniel Carmolinga eyed the blinking numbers on the gasoline pump with a mixture of relief and suspicion -- relief that the total was significantly lower than it would have been a few months ago, but suspicion that Tuesday's election might have something to do with it.
"It seems that always right before election time, prices go down. It may not be a coincidence," Carmolinga said on a recent Friday as he paid $2.47 a gallon at a Shell station in Long Beach. In mid-July, the car dealership employee would have paid nearly $1 more per gallon.
Compton resident Tanaya Jordan has doubts too. Jordan is a security guard who patrols in her own car and foots the gasoline bill.
"I think it may be political, and a lot of people are catching on," she said of the unusually steep drop in pump prices. Still, added Jordan, "it's not going down fast enough for me."
The Bush administration, many oil analysts and the industry's primary trade group have dismissed the public skepticism as conspiracy theory run amok.
"These accusations are just silly," said John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute. The cost of gas fell, he said, because "those things that caused the price to rise reversed."
But like the two California motorists, a notable percentage of Americans believe that the recent plunge in gasoline prices has more to do with November voting than with the price of oil and other market forces, two recent polls found.
Last month, a Gallup Poll of 1,000 adults found that although a majority of those surveyed rejected the suggestion that gasoline prices were being manipulated by the Bush administration for election purposes, 42% -- mostly Democrats -- believed that the president was doing just that.
"It is not unusual for people to think there are conspiracies," said Gallup Poll Editor in Chief Frank Newport, whose past polls have asked about the Kennedy assassination and whether astronauts really walked on the moon. "But we did know from previous work that Americans perceived that the administration did have, could have, some impact on the price of gas in both directions."
In early October, a Washington Post-ABC News poll also got a significant response, and not just from Democrats and liberals. The survey asked more than 1,200 Americans why they thought gasoline prices had fallen, and 3 in 10 cited "upcoming election/political reasons" or "Bush/Republican efforts to affect the election." They included 16% of the Republicans polled and 26% of white evangelical Protestants.
Newport said the surveys were partly a reflection of the country's deep distrust of oil companies. The industry, which has never scored well in Gallup's annual survey of American attitudes toward different types of businesses, took a dive in the latest rankings, he said.
"It's not just dead last, it's way dead last ... and it fell precipitously," Newport said of the oil industry's place in the survey Gallup released in August. "A lot of Americans are willing to believe that the big oil companies can control the price of gasoline at their will."
Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is one of the believers.
"The public doesn't know the details, but they instinctively understand that the sudden swing in gas prices is connected to the election," said Court, whose Santa Monica group is a frequent oil industry critic. "Gas prices just don't go down that far as fast as they did. It's totally aberrant behavior for the industry."
Per-gallon prices in Southern California fell at a record rate averaging a penny a day from mid-August to mid-October, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California, and has continued to decline since. The U.S. average price, which rose slightly in recent days, fell at a similar pace.
And so the questions persist, from the White House briefing room to the campaign trail.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters in late September that he was amused by "the attempt by some people to say that the president has been rigging gas prices." That kind of power, he said, "would give him the kind of magisterial clout unknown to any other human being."
If the president could control gasoline prices, Snow said, "why on Earth did we raise them to $3.50 before?"
During a recent campaign stop in Indiana, a reporter asked Vice President Dick Cheney to comment on the declining cost of fuel so close to an election.
"We don't control gasoline prices," Cheney said, according to a transcript of the exchange. "There may be people out there who think we do, but we don't.... The balance between supply and demand has moved in a direction that's led to a significant reduction in the price of crude oil, and that in turn has led to a reduction in the price of gasoline."
Few would dispute the notion that oil and politics are intertwined. Wars, campaign contributions, land-use decisions, environmental regulations and foreign policy are part of the landscape that connects the two.