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Published: Apr 24, 2024 8 min read
A young woman refueling the gas tank of her car
Money; Getty Images

There’s a theory that comes up repeatedly, the crux of which is that gas prices tend to fall in the lead up to elections — to the advantage of the incumbent. The implication is that the president can control gas prices before voters head to the polls.

But is there any merit to this theory?

First of all, there’s no doubt that high gas prices can be an electoral problem for presidents and their parties.

It’s why Republicans have been hitting President Joe Biden with attacks as gas prices have climbed 60 cents since the start of 2024, with the national average now at $3.67. Democrats took even more heat in the summer of 2022 before the midterm elections when gas prices soared to a record high above $5 that June.

Conversely, low or falling gas prices can be a great talking point for parties in power. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Biden administration is trying to assure constituents it will continue to do everything possible to make gas prices affordable.

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Denton Cinquegrana, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), says presidents don’t actually have much power to influence gas prices. But he totally understands why politicians try to take credit for low prices and try to assign blame to their opponents when costs are sky high.

During the last midterm election campaigns, Democrats touted the major gas price declines in the second half of 2022 as oil prices returned to more normal levels after the initial reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If prices fall between now and November, expect the Biden campaign to again make it a talking point.

“If I’m the president or if I ruled the world and gas prices were going down heading into the election, I would 100% take credit for it — despite not having anything to do with it,” Cinquegrana says.

He says it’s true that gas prices typically go down before November elections. But there’s a major catch: Gas prices also typically go down in the fall when there isn’t an election.

Why do gas prices drop in the fall?

There are two major reasons for this seasonal dip in U.S. gas prices: 1) Demand for gas usually declines after Labor Day following the summer driving season; and 2) Every autumn, there’s a switch from summer-grade to winter-grade gasoline, and the winter-grade fuel tends to be a bit cheaper.

These two factors best explain the price drops before elections, Cinquegrana said. Since we hold our national elections in even years, the fact that autumn price drops are also common in odd years is a good indication that the trend isn’t a result of politicians pulling strings to lower gas prices before national elections.

Citigroup Energy Strategist Eric Lee said U.S. gas prices move up and down with global market trends. For the most part, it’s Mother Nature, geopolitics and the global supply and demand for oil that drive consumer gas prices, not the policies of American presidents and politicians, he said.

Gasoline is made from crude oil and other petroleum liquids. Crude oil prices are responsible for 57% of what a gallon of gas costs drivers at the pump, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Weather events can disrupt oil and gasoline infrastructure, lifting prices higher, and the conditions of the season impact our driving habits and the demand for fuel. (Gas prices have been rising recently due to the increase in springtime driving demand and the switch to summer-grade gasoline, among other factors.)

Lee said the theory that gas prices fall before elections isn’t backed up by empirical data. Looking at the gas price changes in the months before midterm and presidential elections, he said he isn’t able to spot a clear pattern of movement in either direction, beyond the seasonal trends we see every year.

“It’s pretty all over the place when I look at like three months before November and six months before November since 1993,” Lee said. “There were some big drops around 2007 and 2008, but really that was about the great financial crisis.”

Does the president control gas prices?

Lee explained that while it makes sense American politicians would want to try to lower gas prices before elections, "there are very limited levers” to actually do so.

In 2022, the Biden Administration’s decision to release oil from U.S. strategic reserves, in coordination with dozens of other countries that released from their reserves, undoubtedly led to lower gas prices than what we would have otherwise seen, he said.

“This was a coordinated strategic petroleum reserve release, which was pretty unprecedented in terms of the number of countries involved,” Lee said. “That was effective.”

Cinquegrana agreed that the release of oil from reserves was a rare case of an administration’s action having an immediate, direct impact on gas prices.

“I would say that the releases from the strategic reserves, I don't think they necessarily dropped gas prices, what I do think they did was they kept prices from going even higher than they did,” he said.

At the moment, it’s unclear if there will be further releases from strategic reserves before the November election. Last week, when asked if such a move is on the table, White House officials said Biden wants gas prices to “remain affordable” and “will do what he can to make sure” that happens, according to CNBC.

According to J.P. Morgan, gas prices would have to near $4 for the chances of additional releases from the strategic reserves to increase.

Beyond releasing oil from reserves, presidents have few other options to impact gas prices. The Biden administration has called on OPEC+ to increase its oil outputs, but the organization continues to limit how much oil it’s releasing in order to keep prices higher.

The administration has also tried to ramp up domestic output, and the U.S. is currently producing record levels of crude oil. However, increasing oil production cannot be done overnight. It takes years to achieve marginal gains, so it would be difficult — if not impossible — to use this as a strategy to tip the scales of an election.

Bottom line on gas prices and elections

Even though the president has very limited ability to control gas prices, voters don’t necessarily see it that way. Experts say that voters care so much about the cost of gas that the price trajectory in 2024 could help determine the outcome of the election.

“President Biden’s expected re-election rests in part on gasoline prices remaining in the $3 per gallon range. All else equal, if gas prices surge back close to $4 per gallon, Trump will win,” Moody’s Analytics said in a report earlier this year.

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