What drives American voters when considering energy issues? What role does the economy play in decision-making? And when does campaign funding impact voter behavior?
Ask Dave Metz, Public Opinion Analyst at FM3, how energy ranks in national polling, and he’ll tell you that most Americans are supportive of an expanding use of renewable energy and less supportive of continued use of fossil fuels, with the exception of natural gas. How much does this matter at the ballot box? “In certain parts of the country, among certain races, it’s likely to be an important issue. But there are other places, particularly in this economy, where other issues may get more attention.” The importance of the issues in voting will depend on how the they are framed in the political debate.
Loren Kaye, President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, agreed with Metz, but added, “When you include the cost of energy, that’s when you get the real discussion, that’s when you get to understand the importance of these policy choices.”
According to Donnie Fowler, Clean Tech Strategist, opinions regarding energy are tied to values. “Energy matters within a certain set of value frames for voters more than it matters as a specific issue in that voting booth.”
Turning to public funding of Solyndra, Metz stated that in a national poll, by a 2:1 margin, the public sees the failure of Solyndra as an isolated incident and believes the solar industry itself is healthy and worthy of public support.
Kaye, however, believes that Solyndra represents the ineptitude of government in choosing winners and losers. In response, Fowler pointed to oil and coal subsidies and the fact that the government built an interstate highway system with pubic money. Now we’re dependent on fossil fuels. If we want major change, at some point there is a break where we need to make a new investment.
Regarding the controversy over the Keystone Pipeline, Metz sees it through the lens of politics, framed as a choice between a healthy environment and jobs. “The question really is, are the jobs created by this project irreplaceable,” he said. “That’s where election-year politics play into it.”
Another lightning rod is Cap-and-Trade. Metz said that the messaging used to sell it is misplaced. The issue, as presented, is more about process than result, and it confuses the public.
Fowler spoke of the amount of campaign money going into politics and legislation around these issues. He said that coal and oil outspend environmentalists and the alternative energy industry by up to 10:1 or higher. “That money is not only affecting the public perception, but it’s influencing the legislators.”
Kaye tied opinion to context. “When times get tough, people care about the economy. Way down below is education and healthcare and eventually the environment. When things get better, those other issues come up.”
However, according to Metz, public support in California has been consistent despite the money used to defeat it, and despite the down economy. He said that the public is hesitant to move backward. “There are some underlying values that are pretty strong, pretty durable.” He added that, on issues of energy and the environment, there is little difference of opinion among Democrats; among Republicans, however, there are vast differences.
Metz said there is broad consensus on certain issues relating to climate. The vast number of Americans believe that climate change is occurring, but the disagreement is about the cause and how to address it. This is strongly correlated with where voters get their news.
– Lucy Sanna
April 19, 2012
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California