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The Real Story on the Political Impacts of Falling Gas Prices

The average price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States dropped 10 cents in the past two weeks, hitting a four-year low.

The average price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States dropped 10 cents in the past two weeks, hitting a four-year low. Elaine Thompson / AP

As gas prices fall across the country much has been said and written about what the drops mean to the economy – and to politics. But the real impacts may vary greatly in different communities across the country depending on what you drive and where you drive.

The current drop in gas prices works out to roughly 50 cents a gallon compared to last year at this time. For the moment the national figure is about $2.72 a gallon compared to about $3.25 in last December. And the price is still falling.

But what does that actually mean to you?

Think for a moment about your daily commute. Where you live plays a big role in how long it takes you to get to work and how you get there. Most people might assume that rural Americans spend the most time in their cars getting to and from their jobs.

But according to Census data, that’s not right. Those who live in Exurban counties, as defined by the American Communities Project at American University’s School of Public Affairs, drive the most. About 40% of the workers age 16 or older who live in the Exurbs spend at least 30 minutes a day commuting to work one-way. Those counties are in yellow on this map.

In the counties called Rural Middle America, in royal blue on the map, the figure is only 26.7%. That figure is even lower than it is for people who live in Big City counties (in pink on the map). In those counties 31.7% commute at least 30 minutes a day.

How can that be? Because the time you spend in your car isn’t just about distance, it’s about traffic. And those in more urban environments spend a lot more time at a standstill.

So, in the political context, are the big winners in the dropping gas prices Exurban and Big City voters? Well, they may get more out of the drop, but that’s not the whole story. It may turn out that Rural Americans get the most out of the drops because their tendency to have lower incomes means the drop carries a bigger impact.

The current change in gas prices may work out to be somewhere around an additional $400 to $800 a year per car. That’s figuring a gas tank of about 16 gallons being filled once or twice a week. Bigger cars and pickups trucks have bigger tanks – often in the 20-gallon range – and they tend to get fewer miles to the gallon. So for those vehicles it could be $500 to $1,000.

Rural Americans tend to earn less than urban dwellers. The median household income in the Exurbs is about $63,000. In Rural Middle America it’s only about $47,000. In other rural communities, such as the counties the ACP calls Working Class Country (in dark blue on the map), it’s only about $38,000.

An additional $800 or $1,000 a year in extra household cash could mean a lot.

In fact, the drop in gas prices may finally give those rural counties a taste of the recovery they have largely missed out on so far, as we noted earlier this year on Meet the Press. That may swing the political mood in those places, or at least cut into the dour temperament that has come to dominate them.

Even that doesn’t tell the whole story, however. There are a selection of largely rural counties that are not enjoying the drop in gas prices – a string of counties running through the middle of the country that have thrived through oil and gas extraction.

Small counties like Dunn and Williams counties in North Dakota, Dewey and Woods in Oklahoma and Karnes and LaSalle in Texas have seen big rises in wages and employment over the last few years. And, of course, that has also led to increases in the jobs and employment at refineries in other communities. Those numbers are bound to slow down as long as the price of gasoline (and crude oil) declines.

The point is the drop in gas prices on the whole is likely a boon to the U.S. economy and it may finally bring relief and a change in mood to places that need it most. But the actual impacts are far from uniform.