Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Public Remains of Two Minds on Energy Policy


With the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico now nearly two months old, the public is sending mixed signals about U.S. energy policy. Despite the growing damage from the Gulf oil leak, the public generally favors continuing to drill for oil and gas in U.S. waters. And in setting priorities for energy legislation in Congress, fully 68% favor expanding exploration and development of coal, oil and gas in the United States.

Yet there also is broad support for limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. And as an overall goal for U.S. energy policy, 56% say it is more important to protect the environment, while 37% say it is more important to keep energy prices low.

The latest Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, sponsored by SHRM, which was conducted June 10-13 among 1,010 adults, finds that nearly two-thirds (66%) of Americans favor offshore drilling for oil and gas: 35% support continuing existing drilling but banning new drilling, while 31% favor expanding offshore drilling. Just 22% would ban offshore drilling entirely.

As in previous Pew Research Center surveys, Americans do not view energy policy as a choice between expanded production and conservation, or between traditional and alternative energy sources.

Fully 87% favor including a provision in comprehensive energy legislation to require utilities to produce more energy from wind, solar or other renewable sources. More than three-quarters (78%) favor tougher efficiency standards for building and major appliances.

By greater than two-to-one (66% to 29%), the public supports including limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in comprehensive energy legislation. Yet about as many (68%) favor expanded exploration and development of coal, oil and gas in the United States.

There is less agreement about providing incentives for increased development of nuclear power as part of energy legislation. Still, slightly more favor (50%) than oppose (42%) including this proposal in the bill.

Overall Goal: Protect Environment

In general, the public thinks that protecting the environment should be a more important priority than keeping energy prices low (by 56% to 37%). As might be expected, there are substantial partisan differences over the goal for energy policy.

Large majorities of Democrats (68%) and independents (59%) say the more important priority should be to protect the environment. Only about four-in-ten (41%) Republicans agree, while about half (52%) see keeping energy prices low as a bigger priority.

When it comes to specific aspects of energy policy, however, even many of those who say it is more important to protect the environment support continued development of traditional energy sources. For example, a majority (59%) of those who view protecting the environment as a more important priority favor offshore oil drilling; 40% favor continue existing drilling while banning new drilling and 19% support expanded offshore drilling.

Gender Gap Over Offshore Drilling

Nearly half of Republicans (48%) favor expanding oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters, while 31% favor keeping existing drilling but banning new offshore drilling. Just 11% favor banning all offshore drilling.

By contrast, pluralities of Democrats (41%) and independents (36%) support continuing existing drilling but banning new projects. Democrats (33%) are more likely than independents (19%) or Republicans (11%) to favor a total ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling.

There also is a gender gap in views of offshore oil and gas drilling. While 28% of women favor a total ban on drilling, just 16% of men agree. Those who follow news about the oil leak very closely also are more likely than those who follow this news less closely to favor a total ban on offshore drilling (27% vs. 16%).

Promoting Nuclear Power

There are partisan differences over specific aspects of energy legislation before Congress, but majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents favor most of the proposals on the survey, including limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Most Democrats (75%), independents (62%) and Republicans (59%) favor including limits on CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in comprehensive energy legislation.

Yet increased incentives for development of nuclear power are an exception in this regard: 64% of Republicans favor including this in the legislation compared with 49% of independents and just 40% of Democrats.

There also are wide gender and educational differences in views of promoting nuclear power. Far more men (61%) than women (40%) favor including incentives for development of nuclear power. There is a comparable gap between college graduates (60% favor) and those with no more than a high school education (43%).

Greenhouse Gas Limits: Whom Do You Trust?

The survey also finds that 42% of Americans say they trust the judgment of the Obama administration more than that of Republicans in Congress when it comes to deciding whether the U.S. should regulate greenhouse gases; 33% trust Republicans in Congress more, while 15% volunteer that they trust neither.

Fully 75% of Democrats trust the Obama administration more when it comes to determining whether greenhouse gases should be regulated; 70% of Republicans place more trust the Republicans in Congress. Independents are divided, with 36% expressing more trust in the Obama administration, 29% in GOP members of Congress, and 22% neither.

Obama’s Favorable Rating Slips, Michelle’s Stays Strong

While President Obama’s favorable rating has tumbled since last fall, the first lady’s remains largely strong and undiminished.

More than half of the public (56%) says they have a favorable opinion of Barack Obama, down from 65% in November 2009. About seven-in-ten (69%) say they have a favorable opinion of Michelle Obama, about the same as the 71% that said this in November.

Still, the latest Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, sponsored by SHRM, shows both Barack and Michelle Obama with somewhat higher negative ratings. Barack Obama’s unfavorable rating increased nine points from 30% in November to 39%; Michelle Obama’s increased six points from 16% to 22%.

Among other prominent politicians, 39% express a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin while 52% have an unfavorable view. The balance of opinion toward Palin is now more negative than it was last November, when 42% had a favorable impression and 43% felt unfavorably.

And Americans express more negative than positive opinions of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (27% favorable, 50% unfavorable) and Minority Leader John Boehner (12% favorable, 22% unfavorable). About two-thirds (66%) say they have never heard of Boehner or cannot rate him.

Obama’s Shifting Numbers

Just before Barack Obama took office in January 2009, 79% of the public said they had a favorable opinion of him; just 15% had an unfavorable impression. Obama’s favorable ratings had dropped to 65% by last November and continue to slip this year.

The president’s unfavorable ratings have increased across the board, but particularly among Republicans. In November, 62% of Republicans had an unfavorable opinion of Obama. Now that is up to 75%. Obama has lost ground among his own party as well. Last fall, just 6% of Democrats had an unfavorable opinion of the new president; now that stands at 14%.

Obama’s ratings also have fallen sharply among those 65 and older. Last fall, 57% of those 65 and older had a favorable view of the president; just 44% do so today. Unfavorable ratings among this group have increased from 38% to 52%.

Views of Michelle Obama

More women than men continue to express favorable opinions of the first lady; currently, 76% of women say they have a favorable impression of Michelle Obama compared with 61% of men.

Among partisans, the largest change since the fall has come among Republicans. Last November, the balance tilted positive; now Republicans are divided (43% favorable, 45% unfavorable). Among Democrats and independents, opinions of Michelle Obama have shown little change.

Palin’s Ratings Decline

Sarah Palin’s overall favorable ratings have slipped in recent months, as the balance of opinion about the former Republican vice-presidential nominee is now negative; 52% of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of Palin, while 39% give her a favorable assessment. In November 2009, opinions were evenly split (42% favorable, 43% unfavorable).

Republican opinions of Palin are little changed from that time; nearly three-quarters (73%) continue to view her favorably. By contrast, about the same percentage of Democrats (75%) see Palin unfavorably, reflecting an eight-point increase since the fall. Independent assessments also have shifted more negative. Independents were divided in views of Palin last fall (43% favorable, 43% unfavorable), but the balance shifted – now just 35% express a favorable opinion while 54% express a negative one.

Gender differences in ratings of Palin also persist; men’s views are split (44% favorable, 45% unfavorable) while a majority of women (58%) give Palin an unfavorable rating. Within partisan groups, gender differences are less pronounced.

There also are age differences in opinions of Palin. Among those younger than 50, Palin is an unpopular figure (56% unfavorable, 33% favorable); Americans age 50 and older are more divided in their views (47% favorable, 45% unfavorable).

Negative Views of House Leaders of Both Parties

As Americans express highly negative views of Congress’ recent job performance, views of Pelosi have shifted more negative in the past year. Currently, 50% say they have an unfavorable opinion of the House speaker; 27% have a favorable opinion. Last June, the gap was narrower (41% unfavorable, 35% favorable).

Positive opinions about the California Democrat have fluctuated since late 2006, when it became clear she would become the first woman speaker of the House. But negative opinions have grown since then as more Americans have been able to express an opinion. In December 2006, 32% had a favorable opinion of Pelosi, 27% had a negative opinion and 41% said they either had never heard of her (26%) or could not rate her (15%).

Today, 27% say they have a favorable opinion of her, 50% say they have an unfavorable opinion and 22% say they either have never heard of her (14%) or cannot rate her (8%). Partisan differences are stark, with three quarters of Republicans (77%), 51% of independents and 30% of Democrats expressing an unfavorable opinion of Pelosi.

Just 12% say they have a favorable opinion of John Boehner, the House Republican leader, while 22% say they have an unfavorable opinion of him. On balance, more Republicans have a favorable (19%) than an unfavorable opinion, but 69% have never heard of him or cannot rate him. The high numbers that don’t know of Boehner are not much different for Democrats (63%) or independents (65%). The balance of opinion among both Democrats and independents is negative, though more so among Democrats.

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