States with highest gas prices back Obama

By Yousur Alhlou

Washington — There is a curious relationship between a state’s gas prices and presidential politics. The higher the price of gasoline, the higher President Obama’s prospects of winning that state.

Obama’s electoral map to victory bears a remarkable resemblance to a map of the nation’s highest gas prices.

California, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and New York – all solidly Democratic – are among the costliest for gas. Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah – where Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to win the presidential vote – are among the cheapest.

An analysis by the California News Service shows that 20 of the 22 states that voted against Obama in 2008 have gas prices that fall below the national average. More than 80 percent of states with prices above the national average for regular gas – $3.91 as of Friday – voted for Obama in 2008.

California, with the nation’s third-most expensive gas behind Alaska and Hawaii, is home to 15 of the 20 metropolitan areas with the highest gas prices. San Francisco ranked fourth as of Friday with an average price of $4.35 per gallon, behind Santa Barbara, Chicago and Honolulu.

While Republicans blame administration policy for surging prices – Newt Gingrich has promised $2.50-a-gallon gasoline – voters paying the highest price for gas may be the least likely to punish Obama or reward the GOP in November.

That doesn’t mean gas prices don’t matter. While political scientists argue there is no direct correlation between high prices and election outcomes, rising gas prices could shake voters’ confidence in the recovery of the overall U.S. economy.

At the same time, discontent among voters in swing states such as Ohio and Florida, where prices are close to the national average, could pose a challenge to Obama.

“It’s going to be very important in the fall. People fill those gas tanks almost every other day,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County).

Liberal states pay more

But there is an irony that consumers in liberal-leaning states are digging deeper into their pockets than their conservative counterparts. Drivers in Santa Barbara, for example, pay 75 cents more per gallon than drivers in Tulsa, Okla.

The pattern encompasses the West Coast, New England and the Northeast – all liberal strongholds – where gas prices are approaching $5 per gallon. Solid Republican regions throughout the South and Midwest boast the nation’s lowest prices, as low as $3.50 per gallon.

Politics and geography are responsible for the discrepancy. States place taxes of differing amounts on gasoline, in addition to the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon. Residents in liberal states such as California, Washington and New York are more likely to tolerate higher taxes.

California motorists pay a 35.7-cents per gallon state fuel tax in addition to sales taxes.

When all taxes are totaled, Californians pay an average of 67 cents in taxes on every gallon of gasoline, according to the American Petroleum Institute, while drivers in Wyoming pay 32 cents. The national average is 48 cents.

Democratic states also tend to enforce stricter environmental regulations, which increase the cost at the pump. California requires an environmentally friendly fuel blend to offset pollution, which can cost up to an additional 15 cents per gallon, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Gas prices correlate with consumer confidence and are a visible indicator of the economy’s health. Pundits speculate that Obama’s approval ratings took a dip in March because of consumer disapproval of rising prices.

But the relationship is more complicated, political scientists say. Experience shows that gas prices alone do not necessarily signal a bleak future for an incumbent running for a second term.

Greater influences

UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck said other factors are more influential.

“What is better related is change in GDP in the six months before the election or even the change in the unemployment rate,” Vavreck said.

Economists say there is a limit to what a president can do to curb gas prices, which are dictated by global market supply and demand that can be linked to threatened supplies in the Middle East, political tensions with Iran, and increased demand in developing countries such as China and India.

Republican presidential candidates have taken advantage of rising prices to boost their energy platforms. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, along with a majority of GOP Congress members, have pushed for increased domestic drilling.

For its part, the White House is attempting to appease disgruntled drivers as gas prices remain on the rise. Last month, Obama took a multistate energy tour to promote construction of a portion of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which is intended to increase domestic oil supplies.

Some Democrats believe Obama won’t be punished so long as his party stands against big oil.

“Voters are getting their wallets lifted at the pump regardless of their party,” said Bob Mulholland, a California Democratic campaign strategist. “And people want to see someone in the ring with gloves fighting on behalf of consumers and car drivers.”

Yousur Alhlou is a reporter for California News Service, a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. cns@ucdc.edu.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: