What Do Places With Highest Gas Prices Have in Common? They're Swing States

(Bloomberg) -- US pump prices remain stubbornly high just three weeks away from the midterm elections, and the states where the pain is most acute include those poised to determine which party controls Congress.

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Nevada and Arizona — swing states with competitive Senate races — are among those grappling with the highest gasoline prices in the country. More than 40% of competitive races rated by Cook Political Report are in states seeing the highest increases in pump prices compared with the 2020 election.

“It doesn’t get easier to sell the Democratic brand at a high gasoline price,” said Kevin Book, managing director of consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners. “To the extent that Democrats are facing Republicans who are trying to make this a referendum on Biden, the increase from 2020 is going to be unflattering.”

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Pump prices are America’s most visible inflation warning, flashing on street corners in every part of the country. The cost of gasoline is higher than during at least nine of the last election cycles, averaging $3.88 a gallon for the first half of October, according to AAA data. They’re nearly 80 cents higher than in October 2008, when equities markets crashed during the Great Recession. As costs surge, the economy has re-emerged as a top voter concern, with higher gasoline prices linked to lower presidential approval.

President Joe Biden has tried to take credit for recent price declines, noting in a speech Wednesday that costs have fallen 30% from the summer peak. “But,” he conceded, “they are not falling fast enough. Families are hurting.”

In Georgia, where gasoline prices are more than 60% higher than during the 2020 election and Republican Herschel Walker is running a neck-and-neck race with incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, pain at the pump is shaping up to be a voting issue.

READ MORE: ‘Just Shocking’: Inflation Buoys GOP’s Hopes for Senate Seat

“I’m going to go Republican all the way,” said technician Pedro Mendoza while filling up his truck at a QuikTrip in Lawrenceville on Tuesday. He blames Democrats for the more-than $120 a week he has to spend on gasoline now, as well as the broader inflation squeezing his and other household budgets. “The people in Ukraine, they need help. But here in this country, we need help, too."

In four states where Senate races are rated as “toss up” by Cook — Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada — gasoline prices are between 55% and 104% higher than in 2020.

Biden is trying to rein in costs. His administration on Wednesday confirmed the release of more oil from strategic reserves and a plan incentivizing suppliers to sell fuel to the government. But oil traders shrugged off the moves, and crude futures in New York have risen for the past two days -- pulling gasoline futures higher, too.

Even if he succeeds in bringing down costs, it may not translate for voters. While Americans are quick to blame the president when prices are high, they tend not to credit him when it falls. When prices fell from a peak earlier this year, for example, more than half of voters surveyed credited not Biden’s policies but market dynamics.

Gasoline prices typically fall this time of year as summer driving ends and refiners switch to producing a cheaper winter blend of gasoline. But with Russia’s war in Ukraine disrupting global energy supplies, several US refineries shut for repairs and fuel exports surging, US inventories are at the lowest seasonal level since 2008. That, along with OPEC+’s decision to cut production, should keep some pressure on prices though the national average is unlikely to top $4 a gallon before the election, according to Rob Thummel, a portfolio manager at Tortoise Capital Advisors.

This year’s spike in prices may feel particularly extreme in contrast to prices during the 2020 election. In the immediate aftermath of oil plunging to negative levels and the pandemic decimating driving demand, gasoline prices were unusually low. Only two states at the time -- California and Hawaii -- had pump prices above $3, according to data from GasBuddy.

Even before that, though, prices this high were rare. Only 11 states had October average prices above $3 in 2018. Today, 13 states have drivers paying more than $4 a gallon. Six have prices above $5.

That’s a “powerful political weight to carry around” for an incumbent running for reelection, said ClearView’s Book.

--With assistance from Michael Sasso, Ari Natter and Chunzi Xu.

(Adds more detail on toss-up races in eighth paragraph and oil market detail in ninth paragraph.)

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