May 24, 2001

From News Interest To Lifestyles, Energy Takes Hold

America's New Number One Problem

Introduction and Summary

Rising energy costs are having a major impact on how Americans are living their lives, affecting everything from their driving habits to the news stories they follow. More than two-thirds say they have been adjusting their thermostats to cope with soaring utility bills, and half report cutting back on driving to save money on gasoline. Better than one-in-three say they have considered buying a vehicle that gets better gas mileage, and fully 31% say they have changed summer vacation plans to avoid long drives.

In turn, rising concerns over energy problems have captured the attention of the American public to an extraordinary degree. Six times as many Americans closely followed news about higher gas prices as paid attention to news about former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s troubled Vietnam experiences, which drew intense media coverage in the past month. The gasoline situation even dwarfed news interest in the delayed execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh: 61% of respondents in the Pew Research Center’s latest national survey paid very close attention to higher prices at the pump, compared to 32% who closely followed McVeigh’s postponed execution.

In a dramatic shift, respondents in the survey, conducted May 15-20, cited energy as the nation’s top concern — 22% identified it as such. This is the first time since the mid-1990’s that any single problem has been identified by this many respondents in a Center survey. This is comparable to the number who cited unemployment as the top problem eight years ago, as President Bill Clinton was settling into office in the midst of a recession.

Despite this obvious public concern, George W. Bush’s new energy plan has not yet registered strongly with most Americans. Just 22% say they paid very close attention to news of the administration’s policy, which was announced as the poll was being conducted. Interest in the Bush plan increased over the period of the survey — from 17% in the days before Bush’s announcement to 28% after the rollout of the plan. But even at that, this is far lower than the attention paid to Clinton’s economic and health care initiatives eight years ago.

Worse for the president, only a bare majority of Americans are expressing confidence that he can solve the nation’s energy problems. While 52% express some confidence in Bush, a large number (43%) say they have little or no confidence in him on this issue. Bush’s mixed ratings may well be a consequence of his perceived lack of sensitivity to the environment and charges he has given short shrift to conservation. Those who put more emphasis on conservation have much less faith in Bush than those who think the answer is more oil drilling and expanded production.

On the other hand, Bush is taking little heat from the public over the claim, made frequently by congressional Democrats, that he is paying too much attention to the nation’s long-term energy needs while focusing too little on current problems. In fact, most of the public — including nearly half of Democrats — give higher priority to finding new sources for the long-term rather than controlling prices and dealing with the immediate energy crunch.

The energy problem — especially rising gasoline prices and higher utility costs — is more problematic for people with family incomes below $50,000, women and non-whites. Politically, Democrats and independents report being stretched by rising costs more than Republicans. Parents, a key political swing group during the 2000 campaign, are more likely than non-parents to report that soaring energy costs are forcing lifestyle changes, including cutting back on summer road trips.

Still, unlike some recent polls, the Center’s survey finds only a modest decline in public evaluations of Bush’s overall job performance. But even as approval of Bush remains fairly high at 53%, disapproval has steadily increased — from 21% in February, to 27% in April to 32% in the current survey.

Criticism of the president has not increased at either end of the political spectrum. Conservative Republicans continue to overwhelmingly endorse Bush’s performance and liberal Democrats continue to oppose him. Rather, there are a growing number of White House critics among moderate and conservative Democrats, as well as among independents.

GOP Leaders’ Improving Image

Meanwhile, the image of GOP leaders at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. has undergone a quiet transformation. As the public assesses the more narrowly divided Congress produced by the 2000 election, they see less partisanship than in the past, and like its leadership better.

Since the election, Americans have, on balance, approved of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing — 45% give them good marks now, compared to 36% who disapprove of their job performance. This marks the only sustained period of general approval since 1998, and prior to then, the very beginning of the Republican revolution in late 1994 and early 1995.

A small plurality of Americans (44%) say they are happy that the Republican Party maintained control of the U.S. Congress last fall, while 38% say they are unhappy. Not surprisingly, this opinion reflects a partisan point of view. Fully 83% of Republicans are happy with Republican rule, while just 15% of Democrats agree. Independents are split, with 41% happy, 36% unhappy, and 23% expressing no opinion. The poll was completed prior to reports that Vermont Senator James Jeffords would leave the Republican Party — giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.

In a striking change from last year, the public sees a greater level of collegiality and an effort to achieve results in the current Congress, a factor that has likely contributed to the improved ratings for Republican leaders. About one-in-three (34%) say Republicans and Democrats are working together more to solve problems, up from 21% in July 2000 and 20% in the summer of 1999. Though slightly more (41%) say the parties have been bickering more than usual, this is down from 54% last summer and 68% in the summer of 1999.

This perception of increased collegiality plays a role in how Democrats and independents rate the Republican leadership. Independents who see less bickering in Congress approve of the Republican leadership by better than a two-to-one margin (57% approve, 24% disapprove); among independents who say Congress is less collegial, 55% disapprove of the GOP leadership and just 30% approve.

Democrats who see more collegiality on Capitol Hill are split in their view of the leadership — 39% approve and 41% disapprove. But among Democrats who see more partisanship, fully 70% disapprove of the Republican leadership.

Democrats Remain Unimpressed

Nonetheless, the rise in approval of the congressional leadership is mostly driven by a high level of support among Republicans, 82% of whom approve of the leadership’s job performance, up from 64% a year ago. Democrats, on the other hand, are slightly less likely to approve of the Republican leadership today than they were last year, and the views of independents have remained largely unchanged.

In particular, GOP leaders are doing better with both higher income Americans and religious conservatives. Compared to a year ago, more Americans with household incomes of at least $50,000 give good marks to the Republican leadership, while those with incomes under $50,000 have not changed their views.

GOP leaders are getting much more favorable ratings from white evangelical Protestants; fully 63% of this group approve of the job Republican leaders are doing, up from just 46% at this time last year. White mainline Protestants and Catholics give the leadership much lower ratings than evangelicals
, and those evaluations have not changed markedly over the past year.