Swing Voters and Climate Change

The potential impact of climate change on the 2012 election.
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street

We are hearing a lot these days about a small group of Americans—the approximately 7 percent who remain undecided about which presidential candidate they’ll vote for. So where do these few—but mighty, and mightily sought out by political operatives—stand on climate change?

The latest data from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication indicate that a broad majority of undecided likely voters—as well as Obama-leaning voters—know climate change is real and want the United States to do more to address it.

Conducted this summer, the survey found:

Eight in ten undecided voters know climate change is real. That’s right: 80 percent of undecided voters “believe” that global warming is happening, while only 3 percent believe it is not. This is on par with likely Obama voters: 86 percent and 4 percent respectively. By contrast, just 45 percent of likely Romney voters say global warming is happening. In fact, one out of three likely Romney voters believes it is not happening.

Two in three of the undecided voters polled understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, and only about one in five believe that it’s caused mostly by natural changes in the environment. Undecided voters are split on the question of consensus among climate scientists—but that may not matter in light of the other findings.

Over half of the undecideds, six in ten, say that climate change is among the important issues that will help them decide their vote. As the Yale team puts it, few likely voters say global warming is the “single-most important” issue to them in this election. But majorities of likely Obama voters (75 percent) and undecideds (61 percent) say it will be one of several important issues determining their vote for president. Only 32 percent of likely Romney voters say it will be one of the “important issues” determining their vote.

Undecideds want the president and Congress to do more about climate change. Undecided voters and likely Obama voters say that President Obama (64 percent and 61 percent respectively) and Congress (72 percent and 78 percent) should be “doing more” about global warming. By contrast, fewer than half of likely Romney voters think the president or Congress should be doing more (35 percent and 35 percent respectively) and, in fact, are more inclined to say they should be doing less to address global warming (47 percent and 44 percent).

One place most voters agree? Clean energy. There is broad agreement among all likely voters—85 percent of likely Obama voters, 83 percent of undecided voters, and 73 percent of likely Romney voters—that the United States should use more renewable energy sources (e.g., solar, wind, and geothermal) in the future.

However, agreement about energy splinters again when it comes to dirty fuels. More than half of undecideds and likely Obama voters say that the US should use fewer fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas (55 percent and 65 percent respectively). But fewer than half of likely Romney voters agree (38 percent).

UPDATE (10/4): Polling released last week by Public Policy Polling and funded by Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, showed much the same results in key swing states:

…undecided voters in eight swing states—Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin—favor presidential and congressional candidates who support clean air and clean energy policies over those who don’t, according to surveys of 22,412 likely voters released last week by Public Policy Polling.

By a roughly 2-to-1 ratio (54% vs. 27%), these voters side with Obama’s view that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to set standards to lower carbon pollution, rather than Romney’s position that such limits would be bad for business and thus shouldn’t be imposed.

The poll, taken Sept. 14 to Sept. 20, found that 50 percent of likely votes in these states said they’d be casting their ballot for Obama and 44  percent for Romney; 6 percent remain undecided. The undecideds also favor congressional candidates who support “standards to reduce toxic mercury pollution from power plants” over those who oppose them (59 percent to 23 percent).

So, what’s a candidate to do?

There’s mounting evidence that champions of climate change solutions have an advantage, especially if they clearly and confidently talk about the real and serious threat posed by climate change, while also inspiring voters with a can-do attitude about American solutions that are ready to go, and—perhaps most importantly—take a tough stand against the fossil fuel power brokers who have rigged the system to protect their own profits and block progress.

As Geoff Feinberg, research director at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, told Living On Earth’s Steve Curwood, “Both candidates want to win over these undecideds. And so I think Mr. Obama might do well to reiterate that he believes global warming is happening, that it’s not a hoax, he believes it’s human-caused and that we need to find solutions to solve the problem.”

As for Mr. Romney: “he’s in a tougher spot.”

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