Politics

This Week in Gas Prices, the Only Thing That Matters in American Politics, Apparently

Introducing Gassed, a semiregular look at “the pump” that could call the midterms.

A gas price ticker
Photo illustration/animation by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

The results of this year’s midterm congressional elections could decide the future of issues like abortion rights and crucial programs like Medicare and Social Security. But since a decisive share of Americans are probably going to vote based on how angry they are at Joe Biden about gas prices, Slate has decided to bring you this regular feature tracking what drivers are paying at the pump—possibly the only number that matters in politics right now, really.

Are gas prices going up or down?

Down. According to AAA, the current national average for a price of gas is $3.82 a gallon, about 8 cents lower than last week.

Why?

Gas prices have seesawed all this year. They topped out in June after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent the cost of oil soaring, then declined over the summer, as the crude market softened thanks to recession fears and low demand from China, where the economy has been hobbled by COVID-lockdowns. But much to Democrats’ chagrin, fuel costs began creeping back up last month. That’s mostly thanks to refinery outages in the West and Midwest, which occurred due to a combination of planned maintenance and freak accidents like a fire that killed two BP workers in Ohio. But prices are now easing up again now that refiners have come back online.

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Going forward: There was a brief scare about what would happen after OPEC and Russia announced that they planned to cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day, but thanks to those pesky recession fears, the price of crude has now fallen back below where it was before their meeting. So, at least we’ve got that going for us.

Can Joe Biden control the price of gas?

Not really, but he’s trying his best to make a difference at the margins. The White House has attempted to keep a lid on the price of oil by releasing historic quantities of it from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a vast stock of crude that the government keeps stored in underground salt caves for use in emergencies. It believes those moves shaved somewhere between 17 and 42 cents from the final price of gas, and this week, the White House announced it was releasing another 15 million barrels. At the same time, Biden has promised to buy oil to refill the reserve if crude falls to $70 a barrel. This is meant to incentivize more U.S. drilling by guaranteeing producers that they will be able to sell at a profit, even if oil comes down from its current price. So the administration is at least trying to test the old, conventional wisdom that presidents can’t do much about the cost of gasoline.

Are the midterms really going to come down to gas prices?

It’s plausible! At least, it seems like they’re going to matter.

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Midterms tend to be a reflection of the president’s popularity. And for a long while now, Joe Biden’s approval rating and Democrats’ performance in election polls, have seemed to move suspiciously in lockstep with gas prices. I wrote about it all the way back in November. This week at the Washington Post, Philip Bump published an article with some fancy charts and math showing the correlation is still going strong. Notably, he found that when gas prices drop, Biden’s approval tends to start rising about three weeks later. Conveniently, there are just under three weeks until election day, so maybe voters will be in a slightly better mood about Democrats by then?

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