Gasoline in the Voter’s Pocketbook: Driving Times to Work and the Electoral Implications of Gasoline Price Fluctuations

Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(3) 312 –319
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211043445
Oil prices getting lower. Great! Like a big Tax Cut for America
and the World. Enjoy! $54, was just $82. Thank you to Saudi
Arabia, but let’s go lower!
—President Donald J. Trump, Twitter (@realDonaldTrump),
November 21, 2018
Gasoline prices frequently surge to the forefront of American
political debates. During the presidential campaigns in 2012,
President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt
Romney argued over how to temper soaring gasoline prices.1
The contention closely resembled the heated debates between
George W. Bush and John Kerry in 20042 and between
Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008.3 Further, the polit-
icization of gasoline prices applies not only to increases but
also to decreases: President Trump recently claimed credit
for low gasoline prices, attributing the drop in price to his
energy policy and diplomatic endeavors.4
Nonetheless, the US presidents have only limited control
over global gas prices. While various government policies,
such as import tariffs, infrastructure investment, renewable
energy policies, and environmental standards, can nudge gas-
oline prices in one direction or another, the market principle
of global supply and demand mainly determines the day-to-
day oil price.5 Gasoline price fluctuation is thus largely deter-
mined by various foreign events beyond presidential control.
This implies that it is not a mere product of the presidential
political business cycle (Harbridge et al., 2016).6 In fact, the
US is a “price taker” in the global oil market, where short-run
price fluctuations are largely shaped by various global factors
such as crude oil production and oil trading in the futures
market.7 The frequent politicization of gasoline prices then
raises two related questions: (1) Do voters reward or punish
the president for the changes in gasoline prices?, and (2) Why
might voters blame a president for outcomes that the presi-
dents have limited control over? Two mechanisms can
account for the electoral effects of gasoline prices. First, vot-
ers may respond to gasoline price changes based on “pocket-
book” considerations. Changes in gas prices can create sizable
gains or losses for individual voters and may affect their per-
sonal economic situations. Second, voters can be motivated
by a “sociotropic” consideration. Voters may give weight to
gasoline prices because commodity prices often serve as an
informational cue about the national economy in general.
Both pocketbook and sociotropic voting are theoretically
well-grounded (e.g., Fiorina, 1981; Gomez & Wilson, 2001;
APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211043445American Politics ResearchKim and Yang
1Korea University, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul, Korea, Republic of
2Sungkyunkwan University, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea, Republic of
Corresponding Author:
Joonseok Yang, Sungkyunkwan University, 25-2 Sungkyunkwan-ro,
Myeongnyun 3(sam)ga-dong, Jongno-gu 03063, Seoul, Korea, Republic of.
Gasoline in the Voter’s Pocketbook:
Driving Times to Work and the
Electoral Implications of Gasoline
Price Fluctuations
Sung Eun Kim1 and Joonseok Yang2
Gasoline prices are often a heated topic during presidential election campaigns in the United States. Yet, presidents have
limited control over gasoline prices. Do voters reward or punish the president for changes in gasoline prices? Why might
voters blame the president for an outcome beyond direct presidential control? This study addresses these questions by
testing the effects of gasoline prices on pocketbook retrospection by voters. To capture the personal economic burden of
gasoline prices, we rely on average driving times to work, given the inelastic nature of gasoline consumption for commuting.
The results provide evidence for pocketbook voting: constituencies with longer average driving times to work are more
likely to hold the president accountable for gasoline price increases. These findings have broader implications regarding
electoral accountability and rationality in voting.
gasoline price, economic voting, presidential Election, pocketbook voting, electoral accountability, rationality of voting

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