Some new findings on how conservative voters think about energy issues from a bevvy of top-tier GOP pollsters ought to be required reading for the eventual Republican presidential nominee. While the new polls, commissioned by the ClearPath Foundation, offer some intuitive political messaging advice (e.g., GOP candidates would do well with an energy agenda that emphasizes energy security, rather than a changing climate) some less intuitive results offer advice to GOP candidates about what not to do. Namely, while Republicans probably shouldn’t try to run on clean- energy issues, running against them probably won’t help either.
The data show that clean energy issues are actually pretty popular even amongst the conservative base. An overwhelming 87 percent of self-described conservative Republicans polled said they support policies that allow them to sell rooftop-generated solar power back to utilities. This practice, known as net metering, has mostly faced criticism from the political right, in part because it clearly hurts utility company profits while promoting the interests of alternative energy consumers that receive direct subsidies. (The utilities, it’s worth noting, get some subsidies of their own.)
That isn’t the only surprise. Conservatives actually were slightly more likely than the population as a whole (58 vs. 57 percent) to support allowing people to put solar panels on their own homes without penalty. What's more, about two-thirds of self-described conservatives supported mandating that monopoly utilities invest in solar and wind power (not a particularly free-market idea), while nearly 60 percent also supported vastly increased R&D spending on energy technology. Most also agree that climate change is human-caused.
Among all Republican voters, majorities also voiced support for carbon taxes (worth considering provided they are used to replace big-government regulation and to cut other taxes) as well as for wind and solar power subsidies (which are simply bad ideas). Ultimately, there simply weren't many significant differences on energy issues between self-identified conservatives and the public as a whole. Conservatives are fonder of nuclear power and are more cautious of most subsidies and mandates but even these differences are smaller than one might expect.
None of which is to say that energy and environmental issues will get many Republicans to the polls by themselves or steal voters from the Democrats. Only about 2 to 3 percent of voters, nearly all Democrats, identify the environment the most important issue facing the country. Even among environmental issues, matters like water and air quality rate more important than climate change or energy in poll after poll.
By the same token, it seems clear that all-out-attacks on clean-energy technology aren’t going to win Republican votes, either. There are still plenty of ways for Republicans running for office to talk about energy while drawing clear distinctions between themselves and the Democrats. The Obama administration's record of crony capitalism (Solyndra), big government power grabs (the so-called “clean power plan”), and bloated legislation (Waxman-Markey) offers great targets. But if Republicans take anything away from this polling, it should be this: it’s almost certainly a better idea to attack the means by which the Obama administration has pursued clean energy goals, not the underlying idea of forwarding cleaner energy and reduced carbon-dioxide emissions.