Swing-State Gas Prices Head Obama's Way

And they tend to have an outsized effect on whether voters feel better off.

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Gas station attendant Toke Fusi puts up higher gas prices at Menlo-Atherton Shell gas station in Menlo Park, Calif.
Gas station attendant Toke Fusi puts up higher gas prices at Menlo-Atherton Shell gas station in Menlo Park, Calif.

Gas prices have been unexpectedly high this fall, due to supply shortages and volatile oil prices. They finally seem to be drifting down, however, which could obviously help President Obama if the trend continues up until Election Day.

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An even bigger factor, overlooked by many political analysts, could be gas prices in key swing states. Data compiled by AAA shows that the national average, which has fallen by nine cents over the past week, is $3.72 per gallon. Gas prices are lower than the national average in eight of the 11 most hotly contested states, and higher in only three. Here are the eight swing states with gas prices below the national average, according to AAA:

Virginia (average price for regular unleaded: $3.55 per gallon)

North Carolina ($3.67)

Gas station attendant Toke Fusi puts up higher gas prices at Menlo-Atherton Shell gas station in Menlo Park, Calif.
Gas station attendant Toke Fusi puts up higher gas prices at Menlo-Atherton Shell gas station in Menlo Park, Calif.

Florida ($3.67)

Ohio ($3.45)

Iowa ($3.63)

Michigan ($3.58)

Wisconsin ($3.62)

Colorado ($3.68)

Gas prices, of course, are just one of many factors that determine whether people feel like they're getting ahead or falling behind. But gas prices have an outsized effect on consumer psyches, depressing confidence when they're going up and boosting contentment when they're going down.

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Nationwide, gas prices are still about $.25 per gallon higher than they were a year ago. But many voters seem to realize that gas prices are determined by the level of conflict in the Middle East, demand in faraway places like China, and other factors no president can control. Obama's main challenge is persuading voters that economic conditions, while far from ideal, are consistently getting better.

Another trend helping Obama is falling unemployment rates in 9 of 11 swing states. Four of those states are doing better than the national average on both gas prices and unemployment: Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. Of those, gas prices are lowest in Ohio, at an average of $3.45 per gallon, while unemployment there is 7 percent, compared with 7.8 percent nationally. Iowa has the lowest swing-state unemployment rate, at 5.2 percent, with gas prices at $3.63 per gallon.

Nevada, is the worst of the swing states, with unemployment at 11.8 percent and gas prices at $3.94 per gallon—due in part to recent unexpected refinery shutdowns in neighboring California.

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Obama, needless to say, must do a lot more to win the swing states than sit back and hope gas prices keep falling. But if they continue to drift down, it will make it easier for Obama to convince voters that they're doing better under his leadership.

By most accounts, whoever wins the election needs to win Ohio. If Obama carried Ohio, he'd need only a couple of additional swing states to assure victory. His Republican opponent Mitt Romney, by contrast, needs a stronger showing among swing states in order to win the White House. High gas prices are one of the everyday hardships Romney frequently bashes Obama for, but his case may be getting weaker. With gas prices generally trending upward over time, many drivers may consider the new normal to be around $3.50 or so—with anything below that feeling like a bonus.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.