There’s a major generation gap in the public’s concerns about the environment — one that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel hopes to capitalize on in November’s midterm elections.
“On almost every major question examined in the latest weekly Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll,” CongressDaily reports (subs. req’d), “young people lean much more heavily than older adults toward green-tilting positions favored by environmentalists and President Obama.”
Asked, for instance, to identify the top priority for U.S. energy policy, fully 65 percent of young people say the highest goal should be protecting the environment, while just 29 percent say the top goal should be to keep energy prices low.
For older Americans, the balance shifts steadily toward price. Those aged 30-49 also prioritize the environment (60 percent) over price (32 percent); but the numbers shift to 53 percent for the environment and 41 percent price for those aged 50-64. And with seniors, the priorities flip, with 47 percent picking price and just 40 percent the environment.
Emanuel hopes that by emphasizing energy in the fall, Democrats can attract more young voters to the polls. Generally, the share of the national vote coming from voters under 30 is a third lower in midterm congressional elections than in contests with presidential candidates on the ballot.
In an interview, Emanuel said that while it’s not possible to fundamentally reshape traditional turnout patterns, “at the margins” more young people could be inspired to vote by a legislative debate that shows Democrats committing to moving toward alternative energy and Republicans resisting the change. “It’s a way to get them engaged in the coming election,” he said. “They see it as being about the future, and less about energy policy.”
Of course, what shape that commitment to alternative energy takes is up for debate. Eric Pooley writes in The Climate War that while Obama and “energy czar” Carol Browner have pushed for comprehensive climate legislation, Emanuel and some other advisers (including David Axelrod) have advocated a more cautious approach. With cap-and-trade now all but dead, it’s likely that what Emanuel wants is an energy-only bill modeled on proposals by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) — and it’s questionable whether such a limited attempt to tackle the country’s energy problems will be enough to galvanize young voters.