POLITICS:

How Republicans managed to rebrand 'cap and trade'

A sliver of Americans worry that climate change is the invention of plotting communists, international liberals or U.S. officials engineering deceitful reasons for more taxes. Supposedly, it's a hoax. That's a thin stripe of thought held by roughly six people in a crowd of 100, according to Yale polling.

They are the strident disbelievers, accounting for about half of the nation's 12 percent who are dismissive of global warming. Not caring is one possibility. Another is that they aren't convinced the muscular machinations of Earth could be interfered with by human fiddling.

Count Lora Halberstadt among them.

"There's more validity to sunspots causing climate change than, you know, carbon emissions," said Halberstadt, co-founder of the Racine Tea Party in Wisconsin, echoing a comment by Republican Senate nominee Ron Johnson, whom she supports. That claim has gained Johnson national attention in the past month as he threatens to unseat Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

"Most people on the street, if you say 'global warming,' they roll their eyes," Halberstadt added.

That hasn't, however, been the case historically. And researchers don't think it is now. Public opinion surveys show more than half of all Americans are concerned about the human contribution to creeping temperatures and their impacts. Even more say climate change is happening.

So candidates that seek to please conservative activists by expressing doubt around man-made climate change run the risk of souring a much bigger pool of voters, analysts say. More than a handful of Senate contenders in states from Pennsylvania to California and in between have voiced skepticism about global warming. That might energize the right wing during a primary fight, but it could hazard their campaigns as they race toward Election Day in November, when independent and moderate voters will be weighing in.

"There's nothing to be gained by getting into a general election fight over whether climate change is happening, whether it's man-made -- there's nothing to be gained by that," said a Republican pollster who asked not to be named. "Opinion [on climate change] is fairly divided. It's not a 60 percent issue, like opposition to the stimulus, or opposition to the health care plan."

That's not to say belief in man-made climate change hasn't declined. It dropped seven points over 19 months in a June poll conducted by Yale and George Mason universities. Fifty percent of respondents now say humans are contributing to the changes. Take the cause away, and 61 percent of people believe in climate change, down from 71 percent last year.

An 'economic suicide mission'?

Tea party candidates are sometimes tapping into that eroding support for climate change, casting it as a dubious justification for controversial legislation like cap and trade.

Ken Buck, a Colorado district attorney who's locked in a tight race with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), for example, has questioned the science behind man-made climate change and called cap and trade an "economic suicide mission."

Sharron Angle, a former state lawmaker in Nevada who's trying to unseat Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), doesn't subscribe to the "man-caused climate change mantra of the left," she said in an interview this summer.

"My thoughts are we need to protect the quality of our air, but we don't need to go into a situation where we don't have sound science to back up what we're doing," Angle said.

Similar themes were heard by conservative Senate candidates in Alaska, California, Pennsylvania and Washington state, according to interviews and press reports. Even more of those claims were issued in House races.

Still, climate issues are unlikely to be decisive in House and Senate races this year. Global warming sags below the horizon of concern for most voters. But the economy is another story. Things like employment, wages and debt are influencing midterm voters.

Some Republicans are agitating those concerns by attacking their opponents on cap and trade. By merging the policy to cut carbon emissions with warnings -- often dire -- of rising energy prices, GOP candidates hope to tap into existing dissatisfaction.

Democrats leave 'giant vacuum'

And Democrats may have allowed it to happen, said Anthony Leiserowitz, a researcher at Yale University who tracks public opinion on climate change. Sixty percent of the public have never heard the term cap and trade, he noted, "which I think is a ringing indictment of how poorly this policy was explained or sold to the American public."

"What that clearly did is it left this giant vacuum for those people who oppose this climate change legislation and in fact even for those who don't believe climate change is a problem to frame that policy in their own way."

Enter the rebranding: "cap and tax."

The slogan played a partial role in Christine O'Donnell's success against Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) in the Delaware Republican primary for Senate. It also helped Democrat Mike Oliverio, a state lawmaker in West Virginia, defeat Rep. Allan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) in a House primary. The issue is being used in other races, as well.

Democrats have largely avoided wading into the cap-and-trade debate -- even when they're targeted.

"When you're defending, when you're explaining, you're usually losing," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.

For sure, complicated cap and trade is long on explanation. Instead, candidates are encouraged to talk about the results of the carbon policy: new green jobs, renewable energy, and less pollution and foreign oil.

The answer might not lie in defense but in a strong offense. Candidates who attack climate issues (Republicans) or de-emphasize them (Democrats) are misreading the strong attraction that voters feel for politicians who commit to addressing global warming, said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who researches public opinion on climate.

Pollsters say greens outnumber the skeptics

He put it to the test this summer. Polls conducted in three states asked respondents if they would vote for a senatorial candidate based on statements about terrorism, health care and the economy. That was the control group.

Half of the respondents, meanwhile, were read a statement by the hypothetical candidate about climate change. It said that warming has been occurring for at least 100 years, "mainly because we have been burning fossil fuels and putting out greenhouse gasses." It adds that the nation needs to reshape its economy with electric cars, more renewable energy and conservation.

The findings surprised Krosnick. A candidate in Florida who supported addressing climate change would receive 24 percent more votes than one who did not, the research shows. The margins were smaller in the other two states but still evident: 10 percent in Massachusetts and 7 percent in Maine.

The Stanford researcher also studied past polls across the country.

"In every state, there are large or huge majorities who endorse the green side of this issue and who will vote accordingly," Krosnick said, "and tiny numbers of people who are skeptical of the issue, who will vote accordingly."

There is a significant caveat in the findings: The climate issue, like others, won't exclusively determine the outcome of an election.

That may explain why Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio can express doubt around man-made climate change and still be favored to win. "I don't think there's the scientific evidence to justify it," Rubio was quoted as saying by The Tampa Tribune in February.

Rubio, a tea party candidate, is leading independent Florida Gov. Charlie Crist by 11 points and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek by 20 points, according to a Rasmussen poll released yesterday.

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