Polling the Environment
Air Date: Week of February 2, 1996
Steve Curwood discusses Americans' partisan viewpoints on environmental issues with Jan Van Lohowzen, a pollster with former President George Bush's election campaigns.
CURWOOD: There are some cold hard numbers to back up the sentiments of Republicans who feel that their party is ignoring the environment. For example, in a recent report to the Superfund Reform Coalition, pollster Linda DiVall wrote that 55% of all Republicans do not trust their own party when it comes to protecting the environment. The finding is significant given its source: a Republican pollster working for industry lobbyists who favor weakening Superfund liability laws. The report was leaked to the press, and both Ms. DiVall and the Reform Coalition have declined to talk about it, saying it's for internal use only. So we turned to another Republican pollster. Jan Van Lohowzen analyzed voting trends for George Bush. I asked Mr. Van Lohowzen if he was surprised to hear that more than half of all Republicans don't trust their party on the environment.
VAN LOHOWZEN: Yes it does. But I'm not sure that when people walk into the polling booth this fall, that this is something they're going to be thinking about, rather than the flat tax or Medicare or their jobs or crime or -- you know, you pick the issue. So I think if you ask are the Republicans doing a good job with the environment, then no is probably a fair answer. But if you ask what is important to you right now, or what will it be next November, environment is very low on the totem pole.
CURWOOD: So what you're saying is Republicans aren't doing a good job on the environment, but that most voters don't care.
VAN LOHOWZEN: Most Republican voters. I think there is a constituency for environmental issues out there, probably 10% to 15% of all votes cast. But I think that that constituency is solidly Democratic and that the odds that any of that constituency will vote Republican this fall are so close to zero that Republicans don't have to worry about it. What Republicans need to worry about when it comes to environmental issues is that that will be the issue rather than some other issue like the balanced budget or taxes or something like that.
CURWOOD: Now, in the 1992 election, the GOP won campaigning against government regulation, and those are themes that presidential hopefuls are continuing to use this year. But again, to go back to Deval's poll, only 30% of Republican voters think that environmental laws have gone too far. As Deval notes in her memo to the Superfund Coalition, quote, "The GOP is out of synch with mainstream public opinion." Do you agree?
VAN LOHOWZEN: Yes and no. I think there are huge differences by region in the attitudes toward environmental regulations. I think that in the heartland and in the mountain states there is a tremendous amount of opposition to existing environmental law and a distinct perception that those have gone too far. On the coast you have a generic sense that Federal rules are going too far. When it comes to environment, the environmental rules specifically, I don't think that perception exists. So if I were a Republican and I were looking at environmental issues and I were representing a district in Montana or Colorado or even rural Oregon or Washington, I would tend to ignore those poll results. But if I were a Republican representing a district in New York or Massachusetts or urban California, I'd pay a great deal of attention to those results.
CURWOOD: How about if you were a Republican running for President of the United States?
VAN LOHOWZEN: I think that I would look at results that suggest that the environmental vote is so solidly Democratic that I'm simply not going to worry about it.
CURWOOD: There are 30 Republican House members that recently wrote to Speaker Newt Gingrich saying that they were worried, in fact, about the party's image on environmental issues, and let me quote from the letter here: "We cannot be seen using the budget crisis as an excuse to emasculate environmental protection." These are Republicans now in the House, elected.
VAN LOHOWZEN: Yeah. And I personally agree with their point of view. I feel that the premise that if the Republicans are seen as the party that rolled back existing rules and the party that's responsible for increases in pollution and rolling back some of the successes we've had on clean air and clean water, I think that would be a disaster. That's not my point. My point is what are the odds that that will actually happen, that that is what we'll talk about? And I think those odds are pretty low.
CURWOOD: Now it's clear of course that the Democrats will use the environment as a major campaign issue. President Clinton spent a good portion of his State of the Union address talking about the environment to some pretty sustained applause. How do you think Republicans should respond?
VAN LOHOWZEN: I think Republicans need to focus on environmental policies that continue clean up of the environment, but try to do so at a lower cost. And that they can satisfy their commitment to lower or reduced Federal regulations by refocusing the way we enforce environmental laws. In today's environmental laws, we tend to stress both the goal of the policy, this is how clean we want the air, and how to achieve that goal. And Republicans might argue that there are much cheaper ways of doing it. That we could say let's establish a goal for a particular industry to meet, let's say a particular auto emissions level. But let's let the car and oil companies figure out how to achieve that goal, and that might be a much cheaper way of achieving the same goal. So I think there is a very sound Republican approach to environmental issues.
CURWOOD: And do you think that the Republican candidates are articulating that right now?
VAN LOHOWZEN: No.
CURWOOD: Republican pollster Jan Van Lohowzen worked on George Bush's presidential campaigns, and now runs Voter Consumer Research in Washington, DC.
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