Impact of the oil spill more than just “tarball” entering the American lexicon.

Like the video of gushing oil frothing beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, so too is a general sense of frustration, impatience and disgust bubbling up among American voters.   And, while these emotions may be just below the surface – just as the scientists tell us is much of the oil itself – these negative sentiments have mixed with toxic perceptions of government and the future of the country and appear to be swelling.   The latest survey conducted on behalf of NBC –Wall Street Journal  reveals that the prolonged saga in the Gulf is increasingly affecting Americans’ views of a wide range of issues, including our national priorities, environment, and  economy. 

 National Priorities:

While our research clearly shows that the public lays the blame squarely at BP’s feet, it is notable that “the Gulf Coast oil spill and energy” rank second only to job creation and economic growth as top priorities for the federal government to address at this time (22{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} focus on energy, while 33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} point to the economy).  In early May, a mere 4{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} were focused on energy as a top priority (question wording then did not include oil spill reference). 

If anything, the oil spill has ensured that even at a time of modest gas prices, energy issues are still of interest to the electorate.  In fact, in a publicly released survey Public Opinion Strategies conducted in advance of a candidate forum  in one of the more conservative Congressional districts in the country,  voters expressed more interest in hearing a candidates’ views on energy policy (62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} very interested) than on social issues such as abortion (39{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).  This held true even among GOP voters in the district (57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} very interested in hearing a candidates’ views on energy, compared to 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} on abortion).

The environment

While it is far too early to determine the long term impact on Americans’ views of environmental issues, behaviors and public policy, we do see the oil spill’s impact in a number of key barometers of views of the environment: 

  • 82{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans say the oil spill will affect the nation’s environment a great deal or quite a bit;
  • By a slim margin, Americans are more likely to say that when it comes to oil drilling off U.S. coasts that the potential harm to the environment outweighs the potential benefits to the economy (48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) rather than the converse (46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say economic benefits outweigh potential environmental harm).  Just one month before a majority of 53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} viewed the economic benefits as outweighing environmental concerns;
  • Gallup has tracked a question asking voters to prioritize between the environment and the economy for decades.  Not surprisingly, the results have typically tracked consumer confidence in the economy, with the public quickly reverting to an economic priority following the financial crisis.  The exception is today. One month after the oil spill and the environment has once again taken precedence, as demonstrated in the following graph.

The economy

Part of the reason the oil spill appears to have affected the American psyche is that it came during a time of economic concern.  Like getting punched when you’re down, the oil spill therefore seems a more difficult blow to take.  Nearly seven-in-ten (69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) in the NBC Wall Street Journal poll said the nation’s economy will be affected a great deal or quite a bit by the oil spill – more than said the same about Hurricane Katrina in the aftermath of that disaster.  This view is even stronger in the Gulf Coast, and among women, voters of color, and lower income Americans. 

It is important to note that public opinion is still divided on the concept of increasing off shore oil drilling, given the strong desire for energy independence and an improved economy.  Currently, a majority of 53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} indicate support for “a proposal to allow more drilling for oil off the coast of the United States,” down just seven points from support in early May.  Support for more off-shore drilling is actually highest in Gulf Coast states (59{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).

As the impact of the oil spill continues to unfold, we’ll be monitoring whether these concerns deepen or whether attitudes rebound.  Oil spill fatigue may even be on the horizon as the public tires of constant coverage and references (A tar ball cocktail, anyone?)

Note: Public Opinion Strategies partners with Peter D. Hart Research Associates to conduct the NBC/WSJ polls. Neither Peter D. Hart Research Associates nor NBC/WSJ are responsible for these conclusions.)

Public Opinion Strategies