As Gas Prices Rise, Bringing Back Solid Strategic Advice

Back before the TQIA blog, I used to send out memos once a month with strategic analyses and key data.  The recent rapid rise in gas prices caused Jim Hobart to dig up my June 2008 memo on the politics of gas and energy.  While voters are not yet as focused on the issue as they were in the summer of 2008, gas prices are a potentially significant impediment (along with the housing market) to economic recovery.  Re-reading my memo, I thought it would be useful to bring it back to life.  While some factors are different (in 2008 GOPers controlled the White House and not the House, concern about the economy overall was not nearly as significant as it is now, and the Yankees had not won their 27th World Series title), the broader points in the memo are still relevant nearly three years later.  I’ve also included some relevant parts of a posting highlighting the use of the energy issue by Bob McDonnell’s campaign in the 2009 Virginia Gubernatorial race.  Even after the BP Gulf disaster, I have not seen data that contradicts the points below.

So, here are the relevant parts from my 2008 memo:

We have done a lot of polling on attitudes – and we’ve tested a significant number of messages – regarding gas prices and energy issues. This issue is really personal and significant to voters, and Republicans need to be aggressive at tackling it head on.

Here are some specific findings and recommendations:

It is important to communicate that you support a balanced plan of alternative energy and drilling for new energy resources here in the United States so that we are less dependent on foreign oil.

In a swing state, I tested the following contrast:

Thinking about the November elections…

In the election for U.S. Senate, for whom would you rather vote… (ROTATE)

A candidate who is aggressively promoting drilling for new energy resources in the United States, including access to gas and coal, as well as renewable energy such as wind, solar, and biofuels.

…or…

A candidate who is aggressively promoting alternative energy such as wind, solar, and biofuels, but opposes expanding drilling for oil in the United States because of environmental concerns.

Note that the Republican position features alternative energy (specifically named) as well as additional drilling. The Republican position wins by nearly twenty points. Simply focusing on more drilling for oil is not enough – it is too backward looking; people want forward looking solutions.

There is no reason Republicans should cede the high moral (and political) ground of alternative energy. It is the future. It is change. We also need to encourage conservation. Just as we need to fight wasteful government spending, we also need to fight wasting energy.

However, with four dollar per gallon gas (and going higher), voters are looking for multiple ways to bring down gas and energy prices – so offshore drilling and even ANWR receives significant support. Generally, offshore drilling is polling 64-68% support even in coastal states, while ANWR is polling 54-58% support in most swing areas.

The most significant concern Americans have when it comes to gas and energy prices (besides, of course, the cost) is that we are too dependent on foreign oil. That’s why it is important to stress finding American sources of energy – be it alternative fuels or additional oil.

Asked who they blame for the high price of gas, Americans focus on oil companies and our over dependence on foreign oil. They are also angry at energy market speculators. They see it as a few rich Wall Street types gaming the system for huge profits at the expense of regular people.

It is likely that the focus has changed since that paragraph was written in 2008 — it is far more likely that voters blame the unrest in the Middle East for the increase in the price of gas.  However, if prices do stay high, it is likely that some of the blame shifts back to domestic targets.  Now, back to the memo:

Public opinion does not have to be consistent. The public dislikes higher taxes and higher gas prices, but I’ve generally found 65-70% support for a windfall profits tax. Voters don’t understand why oil companies are making huge profits at their expense. At the same time, voters also don’t buy the Democratic message that additional drilling is a bad idea.

Assuming you fight them to a draw on alternative energy, the biggest advantage that Democrats have on energy is their support for a windfall profits tax. Even a (slight) majority of Republican voters support it.  It is important Republicans don’t fall into the trap Democrats are laying for us on this issue. Our voters are populists – we should be focused on them, not on protecting the big oil companies.

Expect Democrats to bring back the windfall profits tax.  By derailing new domestic drilling, President Obama has boxed himself in on energy, so at some point he will stop hitting the snooze button and try to do something about rising gas prices.  He does not have many options.

Be frank with the voters. Point out that this problem is not going to be solved overnight – but doing something that will take time is better than doing nothing.  The press and Democrats point out that additional exploration won’t have any impact for ten years or so. That may be true, but that’s a defeatist attitude on their part. Follow that logic – we have a problem, it’s not easily solved, so we are better off not trying.  Be frank with voters – if any of this were easy (alternative fuels, additional exploration and American oil production) it would be happening now. But that’s no reason not to start fixing a problem that Washington has blocked through an incoherent energy policy. Voters overwhelmingly believe our energy policy is off on the wrong track – it is better to aggressively fix it than to do very little and hope for the best.

The Bottom Line

It is important to focus on your support for a balanced energy policy that offers a range of ways for America to break our dependence on foreign oil, contrasted against your opponent’s limited plan. Be aggressive in your support for renewable (alternative) energy, so that you don’t come off sounding like a candidate afraid of the future.

And now, from my November 2009 blog post on the VA Gov race:

One of the most important ads we ran was relatively early in the campaign, and only ran in downstate markets (it was before we were advertising in the DC DMA). It was Bob to camera talking about his energy plan, which included green jobs. It defined Bob as a forward-looking leader, who is for all of the above – oil, coal, solar, wind – a blend of both traditional and alternative energy.

Republicans need to seize the high ground on energy and gas issues.   We are for it all. . .offshore drilling so we are less dependent on foreign oil, nuclear, wind, solar, clean coal, and natural gas.  Voters know alternative energy is not yet ready to replace oil — but voters also believe that anyone who says we should rely solely on oil is a political and policy dinosaur.

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