Voters don’t care about the environment

Barring the invention of a time machine, no one can know exactly what will happen on election day. The best that experts can do is to make educated guesses based on polling data and major trends, but it’s still more an art than a science. In a democracy, people can surprise you.

We do know, however, that voters prioritize. They do this because candidates take positions on a staggering number of issues. Citizens must decide which issues are most important to them: crime, taxes, war, spending, gas prices, education, you name it. Take a look at how voters rank the issues and you can see what they really care about, at least as regards politics.

A recent survey of registered voters by the Pew Research Center found that they cared most about: 1) education, 2) the economy, 3) health care, 4) Social Security, and 5) Iraq. The next three issues were terrorism, taxes, and the job market. The environment came in at number 12, which is about where it ends up in most surveys. Does that mean that American voters don’t care much about the environment?

That was the assumption of most pollsters who looked at these issues. It’s not that voters wouldn’t say they cared about the environment. They would. But their concerns sounded a bit like Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ “whale guilt” — that is, one feels vaguely guilty about not feeling more guilty about such things.

Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions wanted to make sense of this disconnect, so it hired the polling firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates to dig deeper than most surveys. The pollsters asked a sample of voters what they thought about environmental issues, what issues were most important to them, who they voted for in the 2004 elections, and how they plan to vote this year.

Even with a smaller set of issues than most voter priority polls, the environment couldn’t compete. It came in ninth out of nine. The Hart pollsters discovered that self-described environmentalists tend to “rank the environment lower as a vote qualifier than other non-environmental issues such as abortion and Social Security.”

They claimed that their survey finally provided “firm evidence” for the disconnect “between the general pro-environment views of the electorate and the general sense that the environment is not personally important to voters in their policy priorities and vote decisions.”

I wanted to see what a decent political handicapper would have to say about this, so I put the question to Michael Barone, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics. He said that it was “mostly right” that voters don’t care much about the environment. He gave a few counterexamples where the odd local environmental issue can give a candidate grief and he pointed to certain feel good votes that politicians from certain regions are expected to cast — against drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance. But it’s fair to say that your average politician doesn’t worry that the environmental vote will sink him, because it won’t.

In fact, the environmentally insensitive incumbents are likely to keep their seats in this election cycle — or are no less likely to lose them — because environmental issues are simply overwhelmed by other issues on Election Day. For environmentalists who believe that all change begins at the ballot box, that’s a depressing thought.

The Hart pollsters took a dim view of voter priorities. They labeled one group of voters “narcissists” because they evaluate environmental policies in light of self-interest. Another group was the “compromisers” because they recognize the real tradeoffs between environmental regulations and economic growth.

The report implied that voters are wrong to believe “there has been ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ progress in our country’s efforts to protect our land air, and water.” But there has been real progress in controlling pollution and cleaning up the air and water in recent decades.

It’s possible voters just “know” something that the pollsters don’t — that thousands of individual initiatives to help the environment will beat the pants off of fewer, clumsier government efforts.