Midterm forecast: Gas prices get GOP control of U.S. House

If control of the House of Representatives flips to the Republicans this fall, economist Jim Doti thinks he found the issue driving political change: the gas pump.

Chapman University’s veteran economic forecaster was trying to see which historic economic, demographic or voting patterns factors might provide numerical hints for November’s midterm elections in which control of the House is at stake.

Doti’s formula suggests Republicans will gain control of the House by flipping 53 of the legislative body’s 435 seats to the GOP side of the political aisle in November. The flip isn’t terribly stunning considering the party controlling the White House has lost an average 27 seats in midterms since World War II. And over the July 4th weekend, forecasters at fivethirtyeight.com gave the GOP an 87% chance of winning the House in the first fall projection for 2022.

Political track records are not fool-proof prognostications of future election results. But Doti was startled to discover the pivotal vote-changer that’s bad news for President Joe Biden and his Democrats: record-high gasoline prices.

“First of all, let me say that this was a big surprise to me,” Doti says.

Price points

Pain at the pump was not on Doti’s mind when he started the research with fellow Chapman professor Fadel Lawandy. He was betting big vote swings followed inflation, which in 2022 is running at 40-year highs.

But when the professors looked at voting patterns vs. traditional measures of the cost of living, such as the Consumer Price index, Doti said “I found nothing, even when you look at some of our high inflationary periods.”

So gasoline prices were input into his formula, and to the professors’ astonishment, fuel inflation was a significant political driver. The out-of-power party gained more House midterm seats when gasoline was pricier.

Equally noteworthy were the only two times the party in the White House grew its political base in the House at the midterms — Bill Clinton’s second term (1998) and George W. Bush’s first term (2002).

Gas prices were falling in both of those outlier periods.

So why is gasoline — a relatively modest expense for many Americans — such a political flash point? It’s the simplicity of the economic measurement.

“People every week fill the tank. They see these big prices,” Doti says. “It’s not like reading the CPI. Or reading the Wall Street Journal. It’s affecting their pocketbook, and they get it. They’re agitated.”

Bad start

Doti’s research shows the Democrats start the midterm political season in a weak position.

The model revealed Democrats’ modest House advantage — it’s currently only a 10-seat edge — translates to 10 seats lost come November.

Biden’s unpopularity doesn’t help. The president scored a low approval rate of 41% in May, according to Gallup. That compares with an average of 51% at the same moment for presidents since WWII. The Chapman formula says that adds up to nine more lost Democratic seats.

Yes, there’s decent economic growth — Biden’s 2.8% gross domestic product expansion is better than the 2.5% post-WWII average. But that earns Democrats only one seat by this math.

And a Republican winning Virginia’s governorship — an election that’s proven to be a leading indicator of political fortunes — translates to a six-seat House pickup for the Republicans, says the formula.

Then ponder gas prices — up 61% in a year vs. average hikes of 2.5% annually. That pump pain is worth 29 seats for the Republicans — literally giving them the House if this Chapman forecast is correct.

You don’t need an economics doctorate to understand that if folks vote with their wallets, gas prices are an obvious winner for Republicans. And a psychology degree isn’t required to comprehend the emotional response gas prices can create — and voters often act with their hearts.

To me, though, what will be intriguing to watch is what voters think this fall about topics hard to quantify. The Supreme Court’s actions on reproductive rights or gun control. Or the hearings into the January 6 insurgency.

I’ll note that 1974’s midterms — when the Republicans controlled the White House and lost 48 House seats — were the party’s second-worst outcome since World War II. By the way, the 50 seats lost in Dwight Eisenhower’s second term in 1958 was the GOP’s biggest drop.

What was up in 1974?

Gas prices jumped 33% to 53 cents per gallon. Inflation ran at 11%. But Richard Nixon also resigned from the presidency. Oh, and it was the first midterm election after the Supreme Court made abortion a right in every state in Roe vs. Wade.

Sketchy tale

Doti tells the tale of a recent visit to a Chapman University graphic design class.

Students were assigned to draw a political cartoon. Doti was there to provide some economic background highlighting the nation’s inflation challenges.

And what was the theme of the graphic professor’s favorite cartoon from the assignment? A humorous sketch of a gas station where the price was artfully displayed at $18.89 a gallon.

“That brings home the fact people see it, it’s transparent,” Doti says of the fuel pump’s political power. “The analysis clearly shows gas prices affect how people vote in midterm elections — but not the overall trend in consumer prices.”

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Comments

  1. Really??? says

    I think they have totally missed the point.

    The public get it. Gas and Energy Prices inflict pain on everyone. From food to clothing.

    Voters get it and they have started to understand Democrats don’t understand basic economics. But then again this is the story behind every Socialist.

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