Americans in today's political landscape are all too often portrayed in opposition. You are either a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, part of the masses or a one percenter. Political positions are cast as good or evil, depending on your view, with little space for commonality in between. But most of us know there's something wrong with this picture painted regularly in the news and political blogs; somehow it doesn't quite ring true. In fact, there are many people who inhabit the middle ground between the two extremes and, for most of us, issues are not rigidly black and white.
Nowhere is the myth of "extremism as the norm" more contradicted than in Colorado, a swing state hailed by many pundits as the key to the White House door. If candidates insist on seeing a sharply divided America, neither will do well here. To win, they must begin using real data and start speaking about policy issues in a way that respects the nuanced views of Coloradans.
Real data comes from effective polling questions. The false conclusions from skewed questioning are everywhere, but are especially evident in polling on energy and conservation policy issues -- land, energy, water -- topics that are especially relevant in Colorado and other western states. Over the course of the last decade, for example, we have been told that voters are extremely divided about environmental protections and energy development. Like other pollsters we, too, have asked questions like, "Which one of the following do you think should be the more important priority for U.S. energy policy: keeping energy prices low or protecting the environment? Too often this would be the only question focused on with news headlines consequently trumpeting: "Americans are divided on the environment and energy."
But generating this kind of headline does not reflect how Coloradans, or Americans generally, think about policy issues.
Instead, consider a recent online poll of Colorado small business owners, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in May 2012. It showed that four in five owners (83 percent) agree preserving public lands is good for local business, jobs and the economy. When asked if they supported an all-of-the-above energy strategy, which promotes development of various energy sources including solar, wind, natural gas, oil and coal, 72 percent of business owners said yes. Moreover, 55 percent said they would be more likely to support an all-of-the-above strategy if it included steps to protect some public lands from development. Finally, 53 percent of the small business owners identified themselves as Republican or independent-leaning Republican, showing that this is not a partisan mindset.
Earlier in the year, the 2012 Colorado College State of the Rockies Conservation in the West poll, conducted by the bipartisan polling team of FM3 and (Colorado-based) Public Opinion S trategies, showed that 78 percent of voters in Colorado believe "we can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time without having to choose one over the other;" 21 percent believe that you must choose one.
These results make it clear that a significant majority of Colorado voters do not view energy and conservation within an either/or framework but as two things that can be balanced, and should go hand in hand. Coloradans are not radical environmentalists or ideological advocates of a "Drill Baby Drill" energy policy; instead, their opinions are somewhere in between.
A recent Denver Post story focusing on the bellwether Lakewood Green Mountain subdivision in Jefferson County points the way for presidential candidates. This Colorado precinct is held up as representative of the nation's pulse, a place where a resident may vote for a Democratic candidate in one race and a Republican in another.
How well the candidates get this real world picture -- how quickly they can move away from a simplistic either-or mindset and start addressing the concerns of Americans with nuanced views -- may be the biggest determinant of who wins the hearts and minds of Coloradans and ultimately the White House.
Stefan Hankin is the founder and president of Lincoln Park S trategies. He has a decade of experience in market research, working with clients at all levels of politics, as well as the non-profit and corporate world. Prior to starting Lincoln Park S trategies, he served as a lead pollster for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential primary campaign.
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