Let me see a show of hands

Raise your hand if you’re more worried about gas prices than climate change.

Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Voters continue to cite global climate change as one of several key issues that will affect their vote in this year’s election, but a broad range of opinion surveys conducted in the final months of the 2008 campaign reaffirm that economic issues — particularly the high cost of energy — far outweigh the environment when it comes to influencing how Americans evaluate the candidates.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late August found energy prices were surging ahead as a concern for voters, with 10 percent of likely voters listing the energy crisis or gas prices in response to an open-ended question about their top concern. It was the “highest listing for energy costs in seven years of national polls” conducted by Quinnipiac, the organization reported, ranking above health care and terrorism.

Similarly, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted Sept. 5-7 found that 63 percent of those surveyed said that recent price increases in gasoline have caused them “financial hardship.” In July, 75 percent said the same, with the decline likely coming due to a late-summer decrease in gasoline prices.

Americans are clearly looking to the next president to do something about energy prices. A CBS poll in early August asked, “Is the price of gasoline something a president can do a lot about, or is that beyond any president’s control?” Sixty-five percent of registered voters nationwide that they polled said they think the president “can do a lot.”

The most recent USA Today/Gallup poll asked respondents which candidate they thought would deal best with “energy, including gas prices,” and Obama also had a large margin of support on the issue, 52 percent to McCain’s 40 percent.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll conducted Oct. 17-19 also asked likely voters which candidate they think would best handle “energy policy,” one of the eight specific issues for they asked voters to weigh in on. Obama had a significant lead in this poll too, 53 percent to 43 for McCain. Voters were asked the same question in early September, and at that time, Obama only led McCain by a 2-point margin.

Though the Quinnipiac University poll from August found energy prices ranking higher than ever before on the list of top issues for voters, voters aren’t really assessing the candidates’ specific plans very deeply, according to Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

“[M]ost people are not going to say, ‘You know, I really like Obama’s caution on nuclear energy,’ it doesn’t work that way,” said Carroll. “Quite clearly, McCain is trying to needle Obama on the nuclear stuff, and on the offshore drilling … There are differences, and they’ll make a difference, but the overall voting is going to be a mishmash, a polyglot, a combination of all sorts of issues.”

Quinnipiac’s poll found that the majority of Americans just want the next president to do something different when it comes to energy policy, and they’re really not that picky when it comes down to what they want him to do. Eighty-seven percent of likely voters back “government funds for renewable energy such as wind and solar power,” and 78 percent support “mandating higher mileage standards for cars.” Fifty-six percent support building new nuclear plants, 51 percent are fine with drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and 62 percent are fine with drilling offshore.

Carroll says that their polling has found that Americans support pretty much any idea offered that they think might bring down prices for them.

“You’re asking people, ‘Do you like paying all this money for gasoline?’ ‘Would you like to do something about it?'” said Carroll. “Suppose we give you a bunch of things people have talked about? … Our polls showed that people are concerned, they’re ready to look at all the popular things.”

But Americans appears to be of two minds on energy. On the one hand, public support for increased drilling in the United States grew over the summer, marching in step with surging gasoline prices. But an ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University poll [PDF] conducted July 23-28 found that 78 percent of adults nationwide want the federal government to “make fuel efficiency standards for cars stricter than they are now.” Fifty-five percent said they want to “increase taxes on the profits earned by oil companies,” and 61 percent said they want to curb oil market speculation. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in June asked found that 63 percent of the public thinks the government should offer tax breaks for companies to develop alternative energy sources.

Obama’s climate advantage?

One of the few surveys on the presidential election to ask voters specifically about global warming found that among the 9 percent of respondents still undecided, 62 percent said climate change is “one of several important issues” for them this year. Conducted by Yale and George Mason universities earlier this month, the survey found that one percent of undecided voters said climate change was the “single most important issue,” compared with 37 percent who said it is “not an important issue” at all.

“What I found quite surprising there is that even 62 percent of undecided voters say that climate change is even one of several important issues in determining their vote for president,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and one of the researchers on this poll. “By no means is it a higher priority than the economy or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or things like that, but it’s certainly one of the issues that’s now on the national agenda. And this is an indication that the American people are increasingly concerned about this issue.”

The Yale/George Mason poll, which surveyed 2,189 adults between Oct. 7-14, found that even among those who have pretty much decided who they’re voting for on Nov. 4, climate change is a prescient issue. Sixty-four percent of voters leaning toward McCain and 75 percent of voters leaning Obama said that it’s at least one of several major issues influencing their decision — one way or another.

But among voters who said they are firmly committed to a particular candidate, 56 percent of those backing McCain said climate change was “not an important issue,” compared with 22 percent of firm Obama voters.

Perhaps an even more interesting finding from the Yale/George Mason poll is that only 10 percent of firm McCain voters, and zero percent of those who are leaning toward McCain, said they “strongly trust” him as a “source of information about global warming.” Compare that to the 13 percent of firm McCain voters and 35 percent of those leaning toward McCain who said they “strongly distrust” McCain as a source of information on global warming. Thirty-two percent of firm McCain voters and 29 percent of those leaning McCain said they “somewhat distrust” their candidate when it comes to global warming.

 

“We did some background analysis, and it’s predominantly people who don’t believe climate change is happening or that it’s natural, or they’re deeply suspicious of the kind of solutions that John McCain has proposed, like a cap-and-trade system,” said Leiserowitz. “So what you’re seeing is the conservative, Republican base that is very skeptical about climate, basically holding their nose on this issue.”

Leiserowitz points out that this skepticism from the base would likely make it harder for McCain to act on the issue, as he has pledge to do.

“It’s very clear that McCain’s base is not in lockstep with him on this issue, and that’s a problem,” he said. “If McCain becomes president, it means he’s going to have to break with many of his own constituents in order to pursue an aggressive climate change policy.”

Other election year surveys show that climate change generally ranks higher on the list of policy priorities for voters who identify as Democrats. A January 2008 Pew Research Center for People & the Press poll found that while 47 percent of Democrats rate global warming as a “top priority,” only 12 percent of self-identified Republicans do. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans cited general environmental issues as being a top priority. Among independents, 38 percent said global warming was an important issue, and 56 percent said general environmental policy should be a priority.

Leiserowitz noted that the sizeable portion of the public that remains skeptical climate change would also present a challenge an Obama administration, but at least the Democrat would have his base of supporters locked in on the issue. The Yale/George Mason survey found that 28 percent of firm Obama voters said they trust their candidate on the issue.

“Obama has the advantage of not needing to worry about upsetting his own base of support,” said Leiserowitz. “In fact, if anything, his own base of support is going to be pushing him to be even more aggressive on the issue.”

Elevating the agenda

With the public largely backing a range of energy solutions, and the candidates themselves touting their energy policy plans as key to revitalizing the economy and easing strain on consumers, does this mean that action linking all three issues is inevitable in the next administration? Possibly, though it’s not guaranteed, says Ted Nordhaus, the environmental pollster who in 2004 co-authored the controversial essay “The Death of Environmentalism” which essentially argued that if greens and political leaders want to win on the climate issue, they have to talk about investment, jobs, and economic growth rather than regulations. For him, the fact that the candidates are framing energy and economic issues this way might be signs that something could actually happen in the next administration in terms of policy.

“Certainly they’re doing a good job of talking about it,” said Nordhaus. “I think the question is going to be, whomever is elected, what are they actually going to do.”

Nordhaus points out that this puts the issue of a green economy much higher on the agenda than it was in 2004, when Democratic candidate John Kerry talked mostly about environmental topics in terms of new rules and regulations. Even in the Democratic primary this year, before the economy went into free fall, candidates were talking about the subject in terms of the potential for economic gain.

“To the degree to which Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama could articulate any sort of progressive or Democratic sort of vision for the future of the American economy, beyond bashing NAFTA and other international trade agreements, it was clean energy and green jobs.”

No matter what happens on Election Day, the degree to which the winner of this race is able to link their solutions to these problems is likely to determine both what and how much action we actually see in the next four years on curbing emissions and creating a non-carbon-based economy. It does at least create the possibility that the overwhelming national concern right now about how to fuel and grow an economy, exhibited in nearly every poll out there, could prompt a transition to a greener version of that economy.

“Obama has a very ambitious clean energy investment agenda that he’s proposed,” he continued. “McCain doesn’t put his money where his mouth is, but McCain sort of talks about this as a fundamental sort of economic competitiveness question, and points it out as one of the main ways we’re going to get the American economy on track.”