CLIMATE:

If polls say 'yes,' why do lawmakers say 'maybe'?

If one were to judge the fate of climate legislation based solely on public polling, it would appear that it is only a matter of time before the bill easily cruises through Congress and arrives on the president's desk.

Hardly a week seems to go by without a new poll showing strong support for climate change legislation. And even though advocates on both sides have spent millions of dollars for or against the bill, those polling numbers have stayed fairly steady.

Most polls show that at least a plurality, often a majority, of voters support climate change regulation, would like to see more government investment in renewable energy jobs, and believe that climate change is real and is caused by human activity.

Just last week, environmental groups released two such surveys -- one from the Democratic polling firm Benenson Strategy Group and another from well-known Republican pollster Frank Luntz -- showing the same general patterns (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

Independent media polls have shown roughly the same results. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released just before Christmas showed that 65 percent wanted the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll a few days earlier placed that voter support for government action at 54 percent.

But if the adage that politicians follow public opinion is true, why are so many key lawmakers still on the fence over the legislation? Why are politically endangered Democrats hesitant to support a bill that the polls say that voters actually like? And why does the seemingly popular legislative item continue to slide further and further down the congressional agenda?

Answering those questions could be pivotal for the future of climate legislation, as both sides admit that the fate of the bill could be determined just as much by public opinion as by the actual policy language in the legislation.

Environmentalists and their allies say it takes time to connect public sentiment with political behavior, and many lawmakers do not have a firm grasp of how the public views this issue or how it can benefit them on the campaign trail.

"There are frequently positions that politicians take that are out-of-step with America," said Joel Benenson, head of Benenson Strategy Group, which conducted its poll for the coalition Clean Energy Works. "I think that when you campaign and you create a narrative about whether a candidate is siding with special interests like oil companies and Wall Street is opposed to creating energy independence, capping pollution, regulating the financial industry, I think that's a pretty good argument for a Democrat to have against a Republican in a lot of races right now."

Some lawmakers say their colleagues' perception of public opinion has been muddied by efforts launched by a handful of powerful interests to defeat the bill. "Some folks, I don't think are listening to people on the ground -- this is a battle between public sentiment and special interests," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), an ardent supporter of the climate change bill. "Over time, the public sentiment has started to prevail."

But critics and some polling experts see the matter differently. They say that while the public may indeed articulate surface-level support for climate change legislation, that sentiment fails to adequately reflect two important factors in any political debate -- cost and voter engagement.

"When you ask people in an isolated way do they want to do something to address the problem, they say, 'yes,'" said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. "When you give them financial implications, those numbers start to erode."

Borick added, "Political figures just do not sense a deep commitment; they see it as a cursory commitment to action rather than a deep commitment that would include financial support."

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported that 28 percent of voters believed that dealing with global warming should be a "top domestic priority" for President Obama.

That number put it dead last among the 21 topics covered by the poll and at its lowest level since Pew started testing the issue in 2007. Addressing the country's "energy problem" came in at 49 percent -- an 11 percentage point drop from last year and the lowest since 2006.

"There's more support than opposition for it, but people haven't heard a lot about this," said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "This issue is off the radar for a lot of people."

How does it play in Peoria? And Reno? And Los Angeles?

With so many of the key climate players in the Senate up for re-election this year, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), the question is whether the issue can help or hurt a lawmakers' chances at the ballot box.

The Benenson poll found that 56 percent of voters said they would be more likely to vote to re-elect a senator if they voted for a climate change bill, while about 50 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a senator that opposed the measure. But Benenson admitted that number is far from indicative of how voters might cast their vote, indicating that such sentiment is only part of larger matrix of how voters make decisions.

Michael McKenna, a Republican lobbyist and pollster, says the response to a polling question that summarizes an incredibly complex issue in a few questions is not a good representation of the kind of pressure that lawmakers would face on the campaign trail, and astute politicians are keenly aware of that fact, he said.

"On a survey question, everyone is in favor of it but if you flip it around and ask it the way it would look in an attack ad in a campaign, 'Would you be in favor of a national energy tax,' then the bottom drops out," McKenna said.

"And unlike in a poll, an opponent isn't going to provide both sides," McKenna added. "He's going to say, 'Where's the jugular, and how do I sever it,' and the jugular on this issue is the cost."

Environmentalists have long been aware of the generally low level of public concern for their issues and for that reason have tried to sell the climate change bill largely as a job creator, saying that the desire to end dependence on foreign oil and jump-start the economy is ingrained in voters even outside the context of the current climate debate.

"They already believe that energy is an economic and national security issue. There is no doubt in Americans' minds that our dependence on oil hurts our economy and helps our enemies; they come to the table with that set of beliefs," Benenson said.

The top three concerns for voters in the Pew poll were the economy, jobs and terrorism.

But it is not clear that climate bill advocates have convinced voters that the potential economic benefits will exceed the hit that some expect to take in their pocketbooks.

"The majority may still be in favor of some policy options, and if you can package it with the idea that it will be a stimulus for green jobs and green technology, it remains somewhat popular," Borick said. "But you really have seen a considerable drop off in support when you start to put tangible cost on it."

Borick's polling has reflected that dynamic -- a poll conducted by the institute in conjunction with the University of Michigan in fall 2009 showed that 53 percent would support a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But when told that the cap-and-trade program would cost them $15 a month in additional energy costs, that support drops to 42 percent, with 51 percent opposed. When the cost number increases to $50 a month, that support dropped to just 22 percent, with 72 percent opposed.

McKenna said his own surveys have shown that the "price point" -- the cost that voters are willing to personally absorb from climate change legislation -- tops out at somewhere between $100 and $200 per year.

"The American public is willing to spend a very modest amount on this; they're not willing to spend what it's going to cost," McKenna said.

There is no universally agreed-upon consumer cost for the climate change bill, and both sides have used their preferred numbers to make their case, with most Republicans and their allies arguing that it cost the average family thousands of dollars, and climate bill supporters arguing that the cost would be no more than a couple hundred dollars and would be offset by other legislative benefits.

Proponents of the bill say concerns about costs have been overblown by special interests that oppose the measure, but voters still consistently show a willingness to support some cost increases on a number of environmentally beneficial issues.

"People say that they are willing to pay more for renewable electricity, they are willing to pay more for fuel-efficient vehicles," said Anthony Leiserowitz, a climate polling expert at Yale University. "We still find a very large proportion say that they are willing to pay for some of these higher energy costs, with one big exception and that's gas prices."

Leiserowitz noted, however, that voters tend to become more cost-conscious during tough economic conditions.

"It's not a priority but especially in today's political climate where unemployment is still very high, where people are still losing their jobs," Leiserowitz said. "All of those factors really push issues like climate change and a lot of other issues off the agenda."

The poll conducted by Benenson includes the standard opposition argument that the climate bill would raise "middle class families' energy bills by almost two thousand dollars," but even with that statement, 57 percent of the voters still said they would support the measure, compared with 39 percent opposed.

"I think as politicians move more into 2010, they'll take a second look at this. I think they'll take a look at data coming out from both sides showing very similar sentiment from the American people," Benenson said. "I think they will see this not as just an isolated partisan-tract debate, I think they'll see that there is upside."

Which way are the numbers going?

Should climate change legislation move to the forefront of the national political debate, that does not mean the current levels of support for a bill will remain constant, as support for seemingly popular ideas can fall off the cliff once it becomes the dominant issue of the day.

Democrats would have to look no further than health care reform, where public support has fallen as the debate has dragged on. Another example cited by some pollsters is President George W. Bush's effort to reform social security -- an idea that tested well initially but whose support quickly collapsed as the Capitol Hill debate got under way.

"It's unclear if this were to move up on the agenda, whether those numbers would change or not," said Doherty of Pew. "At this point, it's a gut-level response to something that most voters probably haven't thought very much about."

The polls have already shown some troubling signs for climate change supporters.

The Washington Post poll, for example, which showed 65 percent for climate change legislation in December, showed 75 percent support just six months earlier. The 54 percent support found in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal represented a drop of 2 percentage points from just a couple months earlier but a 10-percentage-point drop from 2007.

And a Pew poll released in the fall showed a drop of 14 points in the percentage of voters that believed there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming and a 9-percentage-point drop in the voters that saw global warming a "serious" problem -- one of several polls that has shown increased voter skepticism over the issue.

"There's a lot of movement going on here, which makes people even more uneasy," Borick said. "There may still be majority support, but the trend lines are going in the other direction."