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What Do High Gas Prices Mean for the 2012 Election?

by Michael Levi
March 7, 2012


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?

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by J.D. Montgomery

    This is interesting. It’d be nice if he stripped his raw price data of state-level tax markups and controlled for the differences in costs of living between each state.

  • Posted by Bill W

    Interesting piece — as with JD I would be interested in seeing actual dollars spent on the Y axis in Figure 2 vs it as % of income.

  • Posted by Tim O.

    Interesting analysis.

    When I think about what would affect voters most in their 2012 election choice, I don’t think percentage of income paid toward gas is necessarily the best indicator. Every person has their own expectations on how much gas will cost based on what they have paid recently. So whether they pay 5% of their income toward gas per month or 10% of their income toward gas each month, that is considered their “normal” expenditure. The real key is how much that percentage changes from the norm (because that is what each individual truly cares about) and at what percentage increase in income from the norm spent on gas per month will cause what percentage of people to change their political support. I imagine using historical gas prices and historical polling data would provide decent data.

  • Posted by pjc

    In my experience, people who pay high gas prices do so for reasons that are more cultural/recreational… they own a big truck for fun, run a summertime motorboat for fun, etc.

    The folks really hurt by high gas prices have had some warning, and now own a fairly high mileage vehicle. (Subsidized by low interest rates)

  • Posted by Jake Tamarkin

    Very interesting, and complements my economic analysis (, which indicates that concern over gas prices in general probably isn’t the issue it used to be.

  • Posted by michelleL

    1. Mr. Houser’s statistics are interesting, but they do not address the primary question that pops into my mind when reading this article- is there an historical correlation between gas prices and the choices of voters when they enter the voting booth? Do high/volative gas prices influence those important swing state voters? And if so, how?
    The media often references dropping approval ratings and frustration with the president’s economic and gasoline policies,( but fail to make it clear how or to what degree this frustration will translate to the outcome in November. But perhaps this cause and effect is already common knowledge and I am uninformed?

    2. Separately, how do the demographics of the gas-consuming populace compare to the demographics of the voting populace? Not only will the election be determined by the role of gas in the life of the average american (% of income, benefit of oil-related economy as demonstrated by these articles) but I imagine it will also be influenced by the character of the VOTING populace, specifically the changes within that population. I have a completely unscientific hunch about my demographic- the “Millenials” according to this article: ( We are probably one least oil/energy/car addicted generations in a while, and we are an increasingly important sector of the voting landscape. It would be interesting to see if and how these key demographics (youth, Hispanic) are influenced by the gas pump.

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