Politics

An Update on Gas Prices, the Only Number That Matters in Politics, Apparently

They’re going down, and might keep going down!

An illustration of changing gas prices
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 such as 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. On Wednesday, the national average was $3.76 a gallon, about 9 cents lower than a week ago, according to AAA.

Why?

Refinery capacity, which if you’re a Democrat in a tight race for Congress right now might be the most beautiful two-word phrase this side of cellar door. As Gas Buddy petroleum expert Patrick De Haan explained to me, fuel prices began rising last month thanks to major refinery outages on the West Coast and in the Midwest. Now that plants have come back on line, prices are trending down. California is leading the way, with pump prices falling more than 70 cents since the start of October, though there have been big declines in the Great Lakes region as well; in Ohio, prices have fallen around 30 cents in the last couple weeks.

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Overall, prices are down in 48 states compared to a week ago, though not necessarily as dramatically as in Cali. “Most areas are seeing a little bit of relief,” De Haan said. “The West Coast and Great Lakes are seeing bigger relief.”

Are prices going to keep falling?

De Haan says he thinks they might. “They still have some room to go down. Compared to the wholesale price of gasoline, there is still room for stations to pass savings on to customers.” Oil prices have recently inched up a bit, but De Haan added that, barring another big leap, he didn’t expect it to affect drivers until at least a week after election day. Convenient timing, if you are, say, Tim Ryan or John Fetterman.

Are gas prices really going to determine the election, or is this just the tongue-in-cheek way you’ve chosen to cope with the maddening short-termism that drives a critical number of American voters?

I mean, look, as I said last week, there seems to be some evidence that Biden’s approval ratings, as well as the Democratic party’s performance on generic ballot polls, have been highly correlated with gas prices. And aside from being a real financial pain point for families, gas is, like groceries, a regular reminder of the bigger issue of inflation that has eaten at Biden’s popularity. And not to cherry pick polling here or anything (OK, I’m absolutely cherry picking some polling), but MorningConsult’s latest tracking poll just reported a 4 point shift among voters toward Democrats in the past week. Maybe it’s statistical noise—or maybe its the sound of drivers breathing a sigh of relief!

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