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Why aren't gas prices the Democrats' October surprise?

Gas prices are displayed at an Arco gas station on October 27, 2014 in Mill Valley, California. Gas prices have fallen to their lowest level in four years with the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline dropping to $3.08.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Good news for the wallets of Americans across the country: Gas prices are hovering around $3 a gallon, the lowest they've been in nearly four years. But it's a fact you won't hear Democrats mention on the campaign trail.

At first glance, it seems like the kind of news any Democrat would be happy to brag about, another sign of economic recovery under President Obama's leadership. A recent report by Morgan Stanley predicted that sustained low gas prices could mean households could have as much as $40 billion extra to spend this quarter. And if the tides were turned and gas prices were on the rise, history shows Republicans wouldn't hesitate to blame the president for high prices at the pump.

So why are Democrats so hesitant to take any credit? Three Democratic strategists who spoke with CBS News offered their thoughts.

Chris Lehane, who was a political strategist for the Clinton White House and now has a crisis management firm, pointed to the narrow slice of undivided voters that candidates must compete for. They're not feeling any richer, and they're dissatisfied with the direction of the country. These voters normally might select the party out of power but might feel the GOP is partially responsible for the country's economic woes.

"That's a voter who has a lot of anxiety, and trying to tell them that things are getting better is not necessarily how you break through and resonate with them," Lehane said.

He also noted that gas prices are part of a "national storyline," and most Democrats are trying to localize their races to put up the best fight against their Republican challengers.

A former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Jim Manley, echoed that point.

"While the economy has gotten much better in recent months, a lot of people aren't feeling it quite yet, so anyone who tries to claim credit for the economy is doing so at their own peril," he said.

A CBS News poll taken in early October found that 55 percent of Americans believe the economy is still in bad shape; just 29 percent believe it is improving.

"No one ever runs and says, 'by the way it's really not as bad as you think,'" strategist Hank Sheinkopf told CBS News. Plus, he noted there's plenty of bad news with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Ebola in the headlines, and "there's no room in the news cycle for good news."

Tooting their own horns about lower gas prices might also make Democrats uncomfortable, having spent years arguing that Congress should end tax breaks for highly profitable oil companies and opposing drilling techniques like fracking, that are unpopular with environmentalists. The single biggest super PAC donor this cycle has been Tom Steyer, the Democrat-aligned hedge fund manager who wants to make climate change a major campaign issue.

Fracking is one of the biggest reasons for the oil glut that's helped pushed gas prices down. "Just like it's a little bit tricky to attack energy companies when gas prices are rising, I think it's a little bit difficult as well to claim credit when gas prices go down," Manley said.

One case in point is Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who is running for the open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa. He has repeatedly accused his Republican opponent, Joni Ernst, of being too cozy with the oil industry. And he has also reversed his position from supporting to opposing the Keystone Pipeline, so taking credit for lower gas prices would almost certainly open him up to charges of hypocrisy.

One of the other great problems with building up a candidacy on gas prices is that it's a messy signifier. For every story that's written about the windfall $3 gasoline represents, there's almost always another about the pitfalls of $3 gasoline. While U.S. economists see it as more money in the pockets of Americans, others may read low fuel prices as the symptom of a weaker global economy. And a weaker global economy means that other countries won't be able to buy U.S. products, which is bad for America. In the end, gas prices may just be too unstable to use as the foundation of a campaign speech.

"Anyone who has been through these campaigns has learned a lesson that whenever you start to talk about gas prices, the issue seems to turn on you pretty quickly," Lehane said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.