Inflation is expected to remain a hot topic as the 2024 campaign season ramps up. The price of gasoline has consistently been an issue front and center in most recent elections.
“Voters feel the impact of rising gasoline prices, perhaps more than any policy that a politician puts in place,” said Phil Flynn, a senior market analyst at The PRICE Futures Group. “Politicians are very cognizant of oil prices. They’re cognizant of gasoline prices because voters care about them probably more than they do on most issues.”
During President George W. Bush’s first term in office, the average weekly price per gallon of gas was $1.59. That is the lowest price among recent presidential terms. In the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate. They picked up even more in 2004 as President Bush was re-elected.
“There’s a really strong inverse relationship between pump prices and approval ratings at a presidential level, and it hasn’t changed in four decades,” Clearview Energy Partners Managing Director Kevin Book said.
Prices were higher and more volatile during President Bush’s second term. The average price was $2.77. Costs spiked in July 2008 to a weekly high of $4.17. By Election Day in November, prices had fallen to $2.46. The steep drop did little to help the Republican Party. Democrats added seats in the House and Senate, and Barack Obama was elected president.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, the amount of oil produced on federal lands plummeted while President Obama was in office.
“When a president comes into office, they can set the stage as far as energy policies that signals to the market that can have a big impact on whether prices rise or fall,” Flynn said. “The reality is the president can make policies that can make prices cheaper than they would have been.”
The average gas price during President Obama’s first term was $3.12. During the 2010 midterm elections, prices were on the rise as Republicans picked up more than 60 seats in the house. Two years later, 2012 marked the highest average price per gallon for any year during Obama’s presidency. Prices fell nearly 40 cents in the two months leading up to election day. Republicans lost eight seats in the house – and two in the senate as President Obama won re-election.
When President Trump came into office, he vowed to increase domestic oil production. During his single term, the U.S. recorded the lowest gas prices since President George W. Bush’s first term. The average cost was $2.57. The average price during President Biden’s partial term, has been more than one dollar higher per gallon with $3.60 as the average cost.
President Biden recently faced criticism over releasing oil from the strategic reserve ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Prices fell from more than $5.00 in June to around $3.80 in November.
“Presidents know that their popularity ratings can go up and down with gasoline prices, and they have done some major things to try to cool off prices before the election,” Flynn said.
President Biden and Democrats have blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the high gas prices. They also said the release was necessary as the U.S. recovered from the global pandemic. Some energy experts argue the release was in fact strategic.
“The Biden administration started releasing our strategic reserves as a way to bring energy prices down, which is clearly not what our strategic reserves are meant for. They’re meant for short-term supply disruptions to address short-term price spikes, not as a long-term market manipulation tool in the run-up to the election,” said Anne Bradbury, CEO at American Exploration and Production Council.
Analysts also acknowledge while policy can influence gas prices, the November drop has more to do with timing.
“More than likely, what’s happening, before the election in November, it’s less people are driving. Usually gasoline prices go up into Labor Day and then crash after Labor Day because everybody’s back in school, nobody’s traveling,” Flynn said. “It’s a normal seasonal pattern.”
As the 2024 campaign heats up, seasonal patterns likely will not stop politicians from blaming each other for the rise and fall of gas prices.
“People care an awful lot about the price at the pump, and they don’t care about a lot of the details,” Book said. “It’s very hard to explain a price going up when you’re going to the polls.”