Swing voters likely will determine the outcome of the November election, for both the White House and for Congress, whose collective approval rating remains well south of big banks at the height of the financial crisis, BP at the height of the Macondo oil spill, and Paris Hilton anytime.
What's on swing voters' minds? Quite a bit, quite unlike the ne'er-do-well whom Kevin Costner portrayed in the mildly entertaining comedy Swing Vote four years ago. Let's focus on energy, likely to be a big issue during this year's campaign.
Colorado College's State of the Rockies project hired Republican and Democratic pollsters to ask 2,400 voters in six statesArizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyomingabout energy and conservation issues. A large majority of swing voters in those states, 72 percent, agreed with the statement that renewable energy would create jobs in their states. Eighty percent accepted that it's possible to have both a strong economy and to protect land and water.
Third Way, a centrist Democratic policy shop, convened focus groups of swing voters in Ohio and North Carolina, two swing states, with a combined total of 33 electoral votes, that are likely to receive plenty of attention from President Obama and whichever Republican ends up winning the current GOP scrum. The focus group research found intriguing evidence that the thinking of swing voters is well ahead of the chatter of the political class.
Swing voters do not buy the hard-right narrative that clean energy technologies are uneconomical losers. They like clean energy, but not for reasons that climate activists on the environmental left might prefer. They see clean energy as an economic engine, but as a seed of long-term growth, not as a quick fix for today's job losses.
Swing voters do not accept the libertarian notion that energy investment should be left entirely to the market. At the same time, they have mixed feelings about government's role. They view government as broken and prone to overregulation, but they also want government to make sure the air is clean and to provide incentives and support research that push clean energy forward. Fuel efficiency standards drew positive responses, as did renewable energy standards.
Despite the support for a government role in advancing clean energy, the voters saw business as the driver of innovation, not government. They don't equate developing clean energy technology with advances in information technology, but with advances in infrastructure, such as the growth of commercial aviation in the last century.
They're worried about economic competition from China and believe the Chinese government is looking out for its national interest in a way that the dysfunctional U.S. government is not.
Climate change did not resonate with these voters. Air and water pollution, however, did. Coal drew a negative reaction as a dirty, antiquated form of energy. Natural gas drew ambiguous reactions, some viewing it as clean, others not. With memories of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster still fresh, nuclear energy was a source of anxiety.
Asked to visualize what the U.S. would be like in 30 years if it remains dependent on fossil fuels, voters described gloomy scenarios of higher energy prices, a weak economy too dependent on outdated technologies, and China soaring. An Ohio man said the scenario would be a "poor legacy of wastefulness and short-term thinking."
Asked to visualize what the U.S. would be like in 30 years if clean energy is developed, a North Carolina woman said: "It must be terrific to wake up and not be bothered with an 'orange code' by air pollution! Today, we are faced with pollutants across our country. We still depend on oil and gas for our vehicles. How I envy you in the future to come!"
The future to come in 30 years will reflect choices that are made today.
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