As I have argued previously, energy is a potential wedge issue for Democrats. The mindlessly pro-fossil, anti-renewables posture of the congressional GOP is supported only by committed Republicans. Independents are far more open to environmental concerns and far more supportive of clean energy. With the right message, delivered consistently, Democrats can bring Independents to their side.
More evidence for this thesis came yesterday in the form of a poll [PDF] commissioned by environmental groups from Geoff Garin and Allan Rivlin of Hart Research. The pollsters did 1,000 interviews, distributed among four key swing states: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. Their findings are quite revealing, in a number of ways.
First and most important: Despite a concerted and well-funded attack on Obama by oil companies, focused on just those key states, the majority of voters still trust the president over congressional Republicans on energy (45 to 38 percent) and jobs (44 to 39 percent). There’s a well of trust from which to draw.
At the outset, voters disagreed with Obama’s decision on Keystone by 43 to 32 percent (25 percent were undecided). The partisan breakdown is interesting. Independents started out almost evenly divided. Even Dems were divided. Republicans, however, overwhelmingly opposed Obama’s decision.
In other words, as things currently stand, only the right has made this a salient issue and pushed its argument strongly. It has fired up its troops. Dems and independents remain wishy-washy because Democratic leaders have not made this a salient issue and have not pushed their arguments strongly.
The pollsters then presented voters with arguments from both sides of the controversy, pro and con.
Afterwards, Republicans remained overwhelmingly opposed to the president’s decision. But Dems moved firmly in the anti-pipeline direction and, interestingly, so did Independents. After hearing pro and con arguments, Independents supported the president 48 to 33 percent.
The lesson here ought to be obvious: Dems can win the public opinion battle on Keystone XL, and on energy issues generally, but they have to fight it. They have to get out and tell their story. They have to quit letting Republicans be the only ones who show any confidence or passion on the issue.
Two more findings are of interest, both in how they defy D.C. conventional wisdom.
First, the argument that most moved voters in the anti-pipeline direction wasn’t about jobs or China or climate. It was about … the environment. Right, that old thing! Concerns about oil spills contaminating water were the biggest driver of opinion. (It’s also worth noting that the energy-security argument on behalf the pipeline collapses when voters realize most of the oil will be exported.)
Second, there was a large gender gap running throughout all these results, “with women overwhelmingly opposed to the pipeline and supportive of Obama’s decision.” Political experts and mathematicians sometimes argue that women are half the voting population. They are more than half of the Dem coalition. And in their suburban varieties, they are a key swing bloc.
Yet, how many women have you seen on cable TV or in major newspapers discussing the pipeline? Has there ever been an issue more dominated by posturing middle-aged white men? (OK, yes, there has, many times, but still.) Jane Kleeb was a key figure in the fight; how many times has she been on Fox or MSNBC?
There are women to make the case, and arguments to be pitched to women, but I can’t see that Obama and congressional Dems are doing anything to put them out front.
This is a winnable fight if someone in the left’s D.C./media establishment would fight it.