According to an article in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, “In much of the nation, ‘cap and trade’ has become a dirty phrase this election season, and the political storm over global warming’s causes and solutions may determine several key races.”
If global warming is so pivotal in so many races, though, why did the Times decide to bury its story, which focused on the congressional race in Virginia’s fifth district, on page fourteen? If, as the article claimed, “Polls suggest several House races may turn on whether the incumbent voted for the ‘cap and trade’ bill in 2009,” isn’t that worthy of, say, front-page attention and analysis?
The answer should, of course, be yes. The problem is that the Times’s claim about what polls have suggested is highly dubious. The article refers to two pollsters. The first is the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund, which supports climate legislation and, on October 18, published the results of a survey of voters in twenty-three congressional districts. The poll asked respondents whether they would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate that had voted for a clean-energy bill, and most people said they would be more likely to do so. That says absolutely nothing about whether voters will cast their ballots based primarily on a candidate’s position on energy, however.
The Times’s second piece of evidence for its claim about the centrality of cap and trade to the mid-term election comes from Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster who surveyed thirty-one House races (from west, to Midwest, to east) for the conservative American Action Forum. Contrary to the NRDC Action Fund’s conclusions, he found that voters would be less likely to support a candidate who had voted for cap-and-trade legislation. Again, however, that says nothing about whether or not voters are basing their decision primarily on candidates’ positions on energy issues. In fact, they probably aren’t. The NRDC Action Fund survey didn’t even ask about other issues, and the American Action Forum survey found that there were other issues—like health care and the capital gains tax—that made more voters less likely to vote for a candidate. Moreover, both groups’ questions were quite leading, stressing the arguments for or against energy legislation that matched their own interests.
As heartening as it would be to see candidates and voters taking energy and environmental issues into serious consideration this election season, the evidence simply doesn’t support that narrative. The economy is eclipsing all other concerns, and where climate legislation has come up on the campaign trail, it has generally been given short shrift, serving only as one measure among many of a candidate’s position on “big government.” Where there has been coverage of the role energy and environmental issues have played in the election, it has usually been up to reporters to draw out candidates’ views.
Take this nut graph from a Greenwire story about three tight House races in Washington, where support for the environment is the “default” position among all candidates:
Washington residents, many of whom are hikers and bikers, spend a lot of time outdoors. And many voters care about the environment, according to a recent survey of registered voters in southwest Washington, commissioned by two environmental groups. Seventy-three percent said conservation is important when considering whether to support a political candidate.
But even in Washington, jobs and government spending, rather than the environment, have dominated the dialogue in the three close U.S. House races.
Or this lede from an article in The Providence Journal at the end of September:
During one public meeting after another in recent weeks, the four leading candidates for governor rarely strayed from talking about the economy, the state budget crisis and taxes. In their first debate Tuesday night devoted to the environment, they continued focusing on the economy, state budget and taxes.
They all said they favored recycling more, bringing more alternative energy sources online and continuing to protect Narragansett Bay. But they all kept falling back to the economy, where they did offer differing ways for turning things around.