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Gas prices are up, but red America may be paying more

A rural lifestyle means Republicans often use far more gasoline than Democrats.

WASHINGTON — As Thanksgiving and Christmas near, it's not uncommon for consumers to grouse about gas prices. It's as much a holiday tradition as Hallmark movies. But this year, the story is a little different. Gasoline prices have spiked in the last 12 months as life has returned to something closer to a pre-Covid norm and travel picks up.

A close look at the data shows that Democrats and Republicans may be experiencing the pump pain differently, a real-life, unintentional impact of the self-sorting that has come to define modern American politics.

The average price for a gallon of gas this month, $3.38, is the highest it has been since 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration.

It's not the highest price ever. In fact, adjusting for inflation, it's not even close. But, as it so often is with the economy, it's a perception that matters to voters, and right now a lot of voters perceive the prices as sky high. That's especially true compared to last year, when prices were artificially low because of the reduced travel that came with the pandemic's first year.

The perceptions vary sharply depending on your politics and where you live, because the GOP has a massive rural footprint. A huge number of self-identified Republicans live in rural, sparsely populated areas. And when you live a rural lifestyle, a bump in gas prices can cause sharp pain, both because of the amount of driving rural people have to do and the types of vehicles they tend to own.

Of the top 10 states for vehicle miles traveled per capita in 2018, according to an analysis by Sivak Applied Research, a transportation research firm, eight voted for former President Donald Trump last year: Wyoming, Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana and Tennessee.

The two exceptions are New Mexico, which is a rare heavily rural state that tends to vote Democratic, and Georgia, which President Joe Biden won by only a hair.

Georgia may appear to be a less rural outlier in the group, but it's in the list in part because the Atlanta metro area is a sprawling behemoth of 29 counties. Getting around the area can take a lot of time and a lot of miles, as most metro Atlantans will tell you.

On the other end of the driving spectrum, the reverse is true. Of the 10 states with the lowest vehicle miles traveled per capita, only one voted for Trump last year: Alaska. Alaska is obviously very rural, but it also doesn't have a lot of roads.

And beyond the higher amounts of driving in Republican states, there is the matter of the fuel efficiency of the vehicles of choice. Americans may love pickup trucks, but they don't all love them equally. There is a heavy red tinge to the states where pickup trucks make up the biggest percentages of new vehicle sales, according to data from Experian.

The top 10 states where pickup trucks are the biggest percentage of new vehicle sales all voted for Trump last year, and by large margins: North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Idaho, Alaska, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and West Virginia. The state on the list with the closest presidential race was Iowa, which Trump won by more than 8 points.

In many cases the difference is about lifestyle and occupation. These are rural states, and in many of them, agriculture plays an important, if not dominant, role. Pickup trucks aren't just a way to appear rugged — they're an important part of life.

More miles traveled in vehicles that burn more gas? Those are real differences. And even though this analysis is at the state level, the rules apply to lower-level geographies. There are rural Republican parts of Democratic-leaning states where residents have to drive farther to make trips to the grocery store and where there are people who own pickup trucks to help with work.

And even though none of the differences is overtly political (they're just functions of where and how people live), the forces behind them clearly have political impacts. The impact of higher gas prices offers just one example of how Democrats and Republicans truly live in different worlds.