Following on the heels of the first presidential debate, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and the Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted leading political pollsters to dig into what Americans think about energy and climate issues and how their opinions align—or don’t align—with the positions of the candidates.
The event, which was held on September 27th and turned out a crowd of over a hundred, featured Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Republican pollster Neil Newhouse—both of whom won “Pollster of the Year” three times. It was moderated by IOP’s Executive Director Steve Edwards.
The first issue the panel tackled was climate change. According to an EPIC/AP-NORC poll, 65 percent of Americans believe both that climate change is happening and that the government should do something in response. Democrats support this position much more strongly than Republicans (84 percent to 55 percent). Interestingly, it wasn’t always this way, Mellman noted.
“In the early 90’s, late 80’s, when we were first looking at this issue, there was very little partisan split,” said Mellman, who is president of the American Association of Political Consultants and CEO of the polling and consulting firm The Mellman Group. “At a certain point, Republicans [in Congress] began to believe that climate change was Al Gore’s political strategy to get himself elected in 2000…and at that point Republicans turned in a massive away against this.”
Mellman said this is a perfect example of “followers following leaders.” That is, voters changing their views on a topic to line up with the view of the leaders from the party they associate with.
So how do we get past this divide?
Clean energy is key to building consensus, said Newhouse, who was Gov. Mitt Romney’s lead pollster for his 2012 Presidential campaign and is a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public affairs research firm.
“Clean energy helps the environment, reduces dependence on foreign oil, it protects people’s health,” said Newhouse, including in that nuclear. “And the more you link that to reducing dependence on foreign oil, the more you are going to get traction in our [Republican] party.”
People also see it as a job creator, Mellman said, agreeing that clean energy is a good way to gain consensus. He added that how you talk about climate change is also important.
“There’s nothing more disengaging than saying this is a global problem that you have to solve,” Mellman said. “We are hardwired to deal with concepts that we can choose about…I don’t have to have an opinion on climate change because there’s no choice I have to make on a daily basis. It doesn’t impact what I do. So there’s much less incentive for my brain or anyone else’s brain to really wrap their mind around these issues.”
The time scale of climate change also factors in, said Newhouse. If people don’t believe it’s going to impact them in their lifetime, there’s no incentive to want to take action. But clean energy is something people can make a choice on, and that “brings it closer to home.”
Newhouse added that we’re living in a period where Americans distrust their government more than ever before, including during Watergate and the Vietnam War.
“So I’m going to give more money to the government to combat this amorphous issue called climate change? Republicans are saying ‘I don’t think,’” Newhouse said.
Mellman added that people are much more willing to pay for something concrete, like clean energy, than for something generic.
Transitioning to something more specific, the panel looked at what Americans think about hydraulic fracturing. The EPIC/AP-NORC poll found only 21 percent of Americans correctly state that fracking accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. natural gas supply. Nearly four in ten Americans have not yet made up their minds about fracking. Of those who have, Republicans support the practice much more than Democrats.
But, Edwards asked, how much does geography play a role?
“People aren’t going to like hydraulic fracturing. They haven’t the slightest idea what it is. But it doesn’t sound very nice,” Mellman said. “But if you go to places where they do frack…you’ll find very different public attitudes. They know something about it and they tend to be more favorably exposed to it.”
Newhouse said if we did a better job tying fracking to a lower dependence on foreign oil and low gas prices, “it’s going to be a much more dead-even issue.” He believes as more people learn about it, it will become a more important issue over the next twenty to thirty years.
Again, focusing in on geography—specifically battleground states—the pollsters next looked at coal. More than half of Americans favor federal regulations that would reduce coal consumption, according to the poll, with the greatest support coming from Democrats.
In the coal country areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio—key battlegrounds—the issue of coal regulations is so strong that it is almost a single issue area, Newhouse said. “It will play this year to Trump’s advantage.”
But on the other hand, Mellman said, you have some newer battleground states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada where clean energy is a very important issue.
Drilling down to jobs, if poll respondents were told that the coal regulations would cause job losses, support waned for Republicans and Independents, but not for Democrats. Newhouse pointed out the data on Independents as being the key. Independents favored the coal regulations even less than Republicans.
“If I’m running a campaign, I don’t care what Democrats are doing. All I need is R’s and I’s on my side, and I’ve got a great wedge issue,” Newhouse said. “The key number there is the Independents. That’s overwhelming to me and that to me indicates that there is a real opportunity to bring this issue down based on jobs.”
Moving to the issue of international action on climate change, the poll showed eight in ten Americans believe the U.S. should continue to make progress towards the commitments made in the Paris Agreement, even if other countries do not.
“Ultimately, people say, we should be world leaders. We should do the right thing, even if other people don’t do the right thing,” Mellman said. If framed as a disadvantage to us, people would feel different, he said.
Overall, Mellman and Newhouse agreed that the best way to frame energy and climate issues is by tying them to local issues that have an impact on people’s everyday lives.