from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

What Do High Gas Prices Mean for the 2012 Election?

March 07, 2012

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Pundits love to talk about how gasoline prices might influence the upcoming presidential election. So it might surprise people to know that political scientists have spent precious little time investigating the relationship between oil and electoral outcomes. The first step in getting our arms around how pain at the pump might play at the ballot box is to pull together some good data. Trevor Houser has done us the favor of delivering just that.

In a new research note published today, Trevor breaks down the gasoline picture state by state, and asks the gas price question three different ways. The first is the obvious one: how do current gas prices vary with political preference? Plotting pump prices against the state-level Partisan Voting Index doesn’t reveal much that’s surprising: blue states see relatively high gasoline prices, red states see lower ones, and purple states are in the middle. When I stare at the chart, though, one interesting thing jumps out. Most purple states have average prices hovering just below four dollars a gallon; if prices rise in the coming months, and the four dollar threshold caries psychological weight, that can’t be good news for the President heading into the summer.

Things get more interesting when Trevor asks a different question: how much are people actually paying every month? The chart below (reprinted with permission) shows the results. It’s precisely the reverse pattern from the one you get when you look at gas prices alone, and suggests that the two biggest swing states – Pennsylvania and Florida – are doing better than one might assume at first glance.

There’s a final twist in the analysis that’s particularly interesting. Several states are seeing booming oil production alongside rising pump prices. That can help offset the statewide impact of increasingly expensive crude. To very roughly estimate this dynamic, Trevor looks that the monthly per capita income change resulting from a ten dollar rise in crude prices, assuming that all revenues from production remain in state. With the exception of a handful of deep red states, and the possible (purple) exception of New Mexico, pretty much everyone else loses on net from high prices.

It’s a neat analysis, with a bunch more charts and specifics than I’ve shared here. Once you’re done looking at it, come back here, and share some anecdotes: how are gas prices playing politically where you live?

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