Why McCain's gas tax proposal is a good idea

Experts agree a holiday from the federal gas tax wouldn't do consumers much good, but the idea could still be a real political boon for John McCain.

Published June 9, 2008 8:16PM (EDT)

If you're wondering why John McCain is talking about his proposal to suspend the gas tax again, a map that appeared on the front page of Monday's New York Times has a pretty good answer. And if you're a Democrat rooting for McCain's defeat this fall, the image the Times presented is not going to be pleasant viewing.

Economists are united in opposing McCain's idea, which is advertised as giving consumers a "holiday" from the 18.4-cent federal gas tax and 24.4-cent federal diesel tax for the peak summer driving months. But just because an idea is bad in principle doesn't mean it's bad politically, and based on the map, which a colleague showed me after my last post on this subject went up, this idea looks very good for McCain politically.

The map, which demonstrates the percent of per capita income by county spent on gas, shows that the states that will be important battlegrounds this fall tend to have residents who've been hit very hard by ever-rising gas prices. In fact, in important places the map really looks like a representation of the Democratic primary vote for Hillary Clinton (perhaps further evidence that economic hardship played a bigger role in the anti-Obama vote in some states than observers said). Considering that Clinton, like McCain, supported the gas tax holiday, that's not good news for Democrats.

Residents of West Virginia and Kentucky, for example, have been hit hard by gas prices. Both states went for Clinton. Plus, in exit polls conducted in both states, voters in the Democratic primary supported the idea of a gas tax suspension by wide margins, and those who were in favor broke strongly for Clinton and away from Obama, who opposes the holiday. In West Virginia, 64 percent of respondents said the proposal was a good idea, and only 33 percent said it was a bad idea. Seventy-six percent of the respondents who said it was a good idea also said they voted for Clinton. In Kentucky, 59 percent of respondents favored the idea; 77 percent of them voted for Clinton.

Other parts of Appalachia outside of West Virginia and Kentucky are hard-hit. Residents of portions of Ohio and Virginia -- both potentially key swing states -- are also feeling the pinch. And the problem for Obama's presidential hopes doesn't end there; it extends to other states that will be crucial for him. People who live in sizable portions of Florida are disproportionately affected, as are people in Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and New Mexico, not to mention all the other Southern states.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.