This week's White House announcement of rules that will, for the first time, limit the carbon dioxide emission from new power plants is a big victory for Americans who want to see the U.S. move away from outdated and dirty energy sources like coal and toward clean sources like wind and solar. It also, despite the conventional wisdom, can be a political boon for President Obama and the White House.
We recently conducted a bipartisan survey, along with the Republican firm Perception Insight, for the American Lung Association that explored voters' attitudes toward environmental regulations generally and on carbon dioxide regulation specifically. We found that voters overwhelmingly support strengthening environmental regulations, including those on carbon emissions.
With the political debate about gas prices raging, we want to be clear that our survey did not touch on that issue and that we are not arguing that gas prices are not a danger for Obama or Democrats. As ads like the one recently released by one oil industry front group demonstrate, this can be an area of vulnerability for the White House. (However, as we have argued in the past, the GOP's two-armed embrace of Big Oil, reaffirmed by yet another vote in favor of oil company subsidies, leaves them equally vulnerable.) Nonetheless, we believe voters see gas prices and environmental regulations as separate issues; our research shows that they do not connect the two in their minds.
In our survey for the ALA, two-thirds of voters support the EPA setting stricter limits on air pollution. And their support is 70 percent or higher for tighter limits on the emission of mercury, smog, AND carbon dioxide from power plants. In fact, a 72 to 24 percent majority support the EPA's new rules limiting carbon emissions. After voters hear a balanced debate, including attacks on the new rule similar to those that have come from Republicans (claiming that the new rules are burdensome regulations that will kill jobs and increase energy prices at the worst time), some Republican voters do consolidate against the rules, but a nearly two-to-one majority (63 to 33 percent) continues to favor EPA's new standards. That includes 65 percent of independents.
The reason there is such robust support for stronger environmental regulations generally -- and these new carbon standards in particular -- is that voters fundamentally reject the false choice that EPA critics are trying to set up between the economy and the environment. To test that specifically, we asked voters to choose between the following two statements:
By a 73 to 21 percent margin -- including 78 percent of independents, 69 percent of conservatives and 60 percent of Republicans -- voters choose the second statement. Moreover, a 60 to 31 percent majority believes that stronger environmental regulations will CREATE, rather than destroy, jobs by encouraging innovation and investment in new technologies. A study conducted earlier this month by the Economic Policy Institute shows that voters, not EPA critics, have it right: Stronger environmental regulations from the EPA (specifically its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards) will create more than 115,000 net jobs in American by 2015.
Despite the economic reality and the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of stronger environmental regulations, the conventional wisdom held by many on both sides of the aisle, and among many pundits, is that the voters will punish politicians who support stricter regulations. Such thinking led, among other things, to the White House's mistaken decision to shelve new smog standards (which were overwhelmingly popular) last year. Our research shows that this conventional wisdom is wrong.
We believe that these sentiments are born from basic misunderstandings of three phenomena.
First is the mistaken assumption that the voting public's general skepticism of regulations extends to regulations specifically addressing the environment. A recent survey from Pew demonstrates how this is incorrect. While a 52 to 40 percent majority says that government regulation of business usually does more harm than good, when Americans are asked about regulations on specific areas, more of them want to strengthen, rather than reduce, regulations (by a 50 to 17 percent margin on the environment). In this, environmental regulation is a lot like spending on Medicare. Voters support less spending or regulation in the abstract, but when asked about reducing spending or regulation on something they strongly support, they are vehemently opposed.
Second is the misread of last cycle's Cap-and-Trade debate. Few would argue that the debate had a positive impact on Democrats (and we do not). However, the negative impacts have been somewhat overblown, leading many Democrats to be overly skittish about environmental and energy issues. There were certainly some rural, conservative districts where Cap-and-Trade played a role, but two separate academic studies have concluded that while voting for the Health Care reform has a significant negative impact on Democratic incumbents, a vote for Cap-and-Trade had little statistically significant impact on vote choice in most districts.
Third is Solyndra. Our research has found that while Solyndra can open Democrats to an attack about unaccountable spending, the concerted attempts from the right to use it to undermine support for clean energy have mostly failed among voters in the middle of the political spectrum. Recent focus groups among independent and swing voters that we conducted with Third Way found that Solyndra did not undermine these voters' backing for government support (through incentives and regulation) of clean energy. Pew has shown similar quantitative results -- support for alternative energy is down among Republican voters, but not independents or Democrats.
Conservatives and Republicans are already attacking the administration over the new carbon dioxide regulations, but they are doing so at their own peril. When it comes to these new standards, voters are firmly in the White House's corner.
Al Quinlan is president and Andrew Baumann is a vice president at the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Any opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors and not of the American Lung Association or Perception Insight.