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Environment High in Personal Values, Low in Political Priorities for U.S. Voters

Eight in 10 Americans Support Pro-Environmental Policies, but Few Vote That Way


Almost everybody claims to care about the environment, but when it comes to voting not many Americans actually do anything about it.

A 2005 survey of 800 registered U.S. voters, commissioned by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, found that 79 percent favor “stronger national standards to protect our land, air and water, with 40 percent strongly favoring them. But only 22 percent allowed their environmental concerns to significantly influence their choice of candidates in federal, state and local elections.

Environmentalists Don't Always Vote Green
Even among people who described themselves as environmentalists, only 39 percent were able to recall an election in which a candidate’s environmental position ranked among the top two or three reasons for the way the cast their vote.

“There is a clear disconnect here,” said William K. Reilly, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and chair of the advisory board of the Nicholas Institute. “Seventy-four percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats say they support stronger environmental standards. Yet, when it comes time to vote, they rank the environment low on their list of priorities.”

In focus groups, the environment ranked last out of nine leading political issues, trailing the economy and jobs, health care, Iraq, Social Security, terrorism, education, moral values, and taxes—in that order. Only 10 percent of voters identified the environment as one of their top concerns, compared to 34 percent for the economy and jobs.

Survey Details and Highlights
The research was conducted for the Nicholas Institute by Hart Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. They surveyed 800 registered U.S. voters nationwide and conducted focus groups of voters in Columbus, Ohio, and Knoxville, Tenn. The survey results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percent.

The research identified five reasons for the discrepancy between voters’ stated support of the environment, and its apparent lack of importance as a political issue once they enter the voting booth:

  • Perception of Progress: A majority of voters (57 percent) believe that “a lot” or “some” progress already has been made and that environmental problems are not as bad as they once were. Only 30 percent described themselves as “angry” about a lack of action on environmental issues.
  • Economic Impact: Eighty-seven percent of voters believe that it is “at least somewhat likely” that stronger national environmental standards will result in higher taxes. Fifty-six percent fear higher standards will hurt the economy and cause some people to lose their jobs.
  • Lack of Urgency: In focus groups, many voters said that they see the environment as a long-term problem, which can’t compare in urgency to immediate concerns such as jobs, health care or taxes.
  • Too Much to Grasp: The environment encompasses a broad range of issues, from global warming and sustainable agriculture to water quality and urban sprawl. Few voters care about them all.
  • The “Me” Factor: Voters’ political perceptions and priorities vary in response to changes in their personal circumstances and responsibilities.

Another factor in voter support of environmental issues at the ballot box appeared to be their lack of trust in sources of information about the environment. Only 19 percent said there were “a lot” of trustworthy sources of information on environmental issues, while another 40 percent said there were “likely some trustworthy sources.”

According to a press release from Duke University, the Nicholas Institute was founded to provide decision makers with independent, science-driven evaluations of policy risks and rewards, and to work with them to develop innovative, practical solutions. It will unite the broad resources of the Duke University community with the expertise of partners in industry, government and environmental organizations worldwide.

The Nicholas Institute was made possible by a $70 million gift from Peter Nicholas, chairman of Boston Scientific, and his wife, Ginny, to Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

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