Voters are still plugged into energy issues, even when those issues aren’t in the spotlight. That’s the core message in the latest University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll, released October 28 by the McCombs School of Business.
With Election Day around the corner, it might seem that Ebola, terrorism, border security and Obamacare have pushed energy off candidates’ agendas. But in the survey of 2,105 adults nationwide, conducted September 4-16, 46 percent of consumers say energy issues have a high influence on choosing which candidate to vote for. Another 36 percent say energy has some influence.
“While we often don’t think of energy as a major election issue, it certainly is,” says Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the poll for the McCombs School of Business. “Nearly half of all respondents say energy is a major voting issue for them.”
That’s partly because it’s a hot one in several state elections, observes David Spence, professor of Business, Government & Society at McCombs. “Nationally, there’s not a groundswell of concern for energy as a political issue,” he says, “but there are places where you do get individual energy issues being significant.”
In New York State, he notes, hydraulic fracturing is a major issue in the governor’s race. Proposed federal cuts to carbon emissions are contentious in the coal states of Kentucky and West Virginia. In Michigan’s Senate race, Democrat Gary Peters accuses his opponent of climate change denial, while in Colorado, Republican Cory Gardner touts his support of wind energy.
A state-by-state analysis of this year’s Senate ads by Kantar Media/CMAG found energy and the environment were the third most-mentioned topic, behind healthcare and jobs.
Besides affirming energy’s importance, the seventh round of UT’s poll of consumer attitudes — conducted twice-yearly since October 2011 — offers a detailed look at the various ways energy powers the ballot box:
Renewables, Prices Generate Heat
Not all energy issues sway voters equally. Renewable sources top the list, with 29 percent of respondents calling them the most influential.
That’s consistent with the poll’s history, in which majorities have been more likely to vote for presidential candidates who support renewables. In the current poll, 57 percent of consumers endorse government financial incentives, while 54 percent want utilities to set quotas for renewable electricity.
“It seems that even though they don’t trust government, many people seem to favor government action to promote certain types of energy, particularly clean energy,” says Spence.
Efforts to repeal green energy standards, by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, have failed in most state legislatures, he adds. “They’ve had remarkably little success, given how well-funded they are. It could be that it’s a hard case to make, and politicians know it.”
Voters’ second-place issue, cited by 25 percent, is energy prices. But the poll also suggests that falling oil prices, along with stable prices for natural gas, are soothing some of the sting. When asked whether gasoline prices will be higher in six months, 76 percent agreed, down from 89 percent three years ago.
No Party Is Popular
When it comes to party platforms on energy, none are catching fire with voters. Of the choices in the survey, the top preference is Not Sure/Undecided, garnering 33 percent, while another 18 percent say None of Them. Democrats get a nod from 25 percent, while Republicans lag at 16 percent.
Spence speculates that many voters simply don’t know where the parties stand in campaigns where energy has been on the back-burner. “It could be that it masks a lack of awareness of what their platforms are,” he says.
It could also reflect voters’ unhappiness with most public officials. When asked whose job on energy issues has satisfied them, only 23 percent name President Barack Obama. State and local governments fare even worse, with ratings of 20 percent and 19 percent, while Congress ranks the lowest: 11 percent.
Censure of Congress, in fact, might be the most bipartisan sentiment in the poll. Among Democrats, 13 percent are satisfied, while among Republicans, the number is 9 percent.
The New Generation Gap: Energy
It’s not surprising to find Republicans and Democrats far apart on most energy issues. What surprises Kirshenbaum is another great divide: age. On a long series of issues, the poll shows yawning gaps between respondents under 35 and those 65 and older.
“Attitudes on energy seem to be influenced not only by party, but by generation,” she says. “Millennials have very different priorities from previous generations.”
One of their priories is for the U.S. government to invest more in all forms of energy. On renewables, 72 percent of millennials support subsidies, compared to 58 percent of seniors. The gap is widest on electric vehicles, favored by 65 percent of the youngest voters and 36 percent of the oldest ones.
Even for a non-renewable fuel like oil, millennials are more likely to back federal aid by a margin of 46 percent to 27 percent.
Both generations do agree on one point: Coal is their least popular fuel. Coal subsidies are supported by 36 percent of younger consumers and 24 percent of seniors.
The generation gap extends to the export of natural gas. Forty-three percent of consumers under 35 would permit it, versus 27 percent of those over 65.
“Our perspectives are shaped by the times we grow up in,” says Kirshenbaum. “Older Americans are more likely to have lived through the 1970s oil crisis. Their point of view is, ‘Keep it at home.’”
The environment is perhaps the deepest dividing line. Among consumers under 35, 56 percent would be willing to pay much higher prices to protect it. Only 20 percent of those over 65 agree. On climate change, 69 percent of younger consumers would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who wanted to reduce carbon emissions. Fifty percent of seniors would do the same.
Do millennials’ opinions today offer a forecast for future elections? Not necessarily, says Kirshenbaum. “You have to wonder, as younger voters age and have families, will they still feel the same about those issues? Younger people are more focused on efficiency, renewable energy and government subsidies for a variety of sources. But you can’t say whether that’s going to hold for the rest of their lives.”
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