SID SALTER: Gas prices remain a significant political issue in Mississippi

By Sid Salter

Remember the 2012 Mississippi GOP presidential primary? Remember former Republican U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich’s promises to bring the nation’s gas prices back down to $2.50 per gallon?
Gingrich went on to his losses to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in Mississippi and Alabama, two Southern states that by rights should have been Gingrich strongholds with eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney not far behind either.
But during Gingrich’s time of maximum momentum in the GOP primaries in the Deep South, it was Gingrich’s energy policy that got the most play and that resonated with Southerners.
There’s a reason Gingrich’s message resonated in the South in general and in Mississippi specifically. Mississippi’s average gas price of late has been about $3.19 per gallon and cheaper than that in several venues. Yet that price is more profoundly painful to Mississippi motorists than the $4.36 per gallon price paid by Alaska motorists or the $4.06 per gallon being paid by California drivers. Why?
The Oil Price Information Service reports that Mississippi drivers pay 11.8 percent of their total income for gasoline at the $3.19 per gallon price, while Alaskans pay 5.2 percent of their total income for gasoline at $4.36 per gallon.
Californians pay 7.1 percent of their income for gasoline at $4.06 per gallon. High gas prices in states like Mississippi with large rural populations who must travel farm-to-market roads to commute great distances for jobs or to sell their wares are particular drags on a state’s economy and greatly impede the creation of jobs.
The current numbers represent an improvement over the same statistics back in March of 2011. In that month, Mississippians were spending 13.2 percent of their total income on gasoline at $3.42 per gallon. At that time, the national average was 7.92 percent of total income spent for gasoline nationwide.
It stands to reason that the state with the lowest per capita income would also be the state with the people most vulnerable to rising gasoline prices.
Clearly, Obama’s energy policy will be a key factor in the 2012 presidential election. Should gasoline prices soar at the pumps leading up to the November election, Obama’s fortunes will take a decided hit. For good or ill, Obama has been roundly criticized for failing to make it easier for U.S. companies to drill for new U.S. domestic supplies of oil rather than to maintain dependence on oil from the nation’s enemies like Iran and other hostile countries in the Middle East.
Obama has also been criticized for his management of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The truth is that no president – Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative – can truly have much impact on the market price of gas. The U.S. produces only about 9 percent of the world’s oil. Complying with everything the “drill-baby-drill” supporters want would only push that total to about 20 percent.
But perception is reality in politics and should gas prices soar again in states like Mississippi where nothing hurts the economy like higher gas prices, President Obama will likely have to pay the political tab that comes due in November.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.