May 24, 2001

From News Interest To Lifestyles, Energy Takes Hold

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Modest Achievements

Perhaps not surprisingly, the achievements of the new Congress — which is just now considering major legislation on taxes and education — have yet to make much of an impression on most Americans. When asked to cite the most important accomplishment of Congress in an open-ended format, only 39% of respondents could come up with an answer.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to be able to name an achievement by Congress. Half of Republicans could cite an important action in Congress, and one-in-four specifically referred to Bush’s tax cut proposal. By comparison, just over one-third of Democrats and 37% of independents cited any important action in Congress. And though the top issue for these respondents was still Bush’s tax cut, only about one-in-ten in each group (9%) referred to it specifically.

Shifting Views on Divided Government

Overall, the public remains largely indifferent as to whether it is better for one party to control both the White House and Congress, or whether divided government is preferable. As in recent years, a plurality (45%) says it doesn’t matter whether one party controls both institutions or not, while 28% favor divided government and 19% prefer one party in control.

But while pluralities of Republicans and Democrats, as well as independents, say the issue of single-party control doesn’t matter, there have been noticeable shifts among the parties recently, reflecting the GOP’s control over both branches of government and the Democrats’ new status as a minority party.

Whereas Democrats were split over whether single-party control or divided power was better for the country during Clinton’s tenure, they favor split control today by a 35% to 15% margin. As recently as last July, when the possibility still existed for Democrats to gain control over both the White House and Congress, 27% preferred unified power.

By contrast, just 20% of Republicans favor divided government, while 31% prefer one-party control. That is sharply different than the view Republicans held in March 1998, when Clinton was in the White House and the GOP was fighting to retain its congressional majority. At that time, 43% of Republicans favored divided government, while just 17% thought it was better for a single party to have unified control.

GOP Morale Rises

Reflecting the enthusiasm they have for the president and congressional leadership, Republicans think the party is doing a good job of standing up for its traditional positions such as reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and promoting conservative social values. On the other hand, Democrats are noticeably less enthusiastic about their party’s efforts on behalf of minorities, the poor and needy, and working people than they were a year ago.

Six-in-ten Republicans (60%) say their party is doing an excellent or good job standing up for its traditional positions, up from 49% in September of last year. By comparison, fewer than half of Democrats (47%) feel their party is doing a good job of standing up for its traditional positions, down from 63% last September.

Much of the increase in the rating of the Republican party comes from self-described conservatives within the party, 77% of whom say the party is doing an excellent or good job today, up from 56% last September. By comparison, the views of more moderate Republicans have not changed significantly — 49% give an excellent or good rating to their party today, up just 2% from last September.

The drop in partisan enthusiasm among Democrats has occurred across the ideological spectrum, with liberal, moderate, and conservative Democrats all giving lower ratings to their party today than they did last year. Older Democrats, those living in large cities, and women have become especially dispirited with the party over the past year.

Last September, more than seven-in-ten (71%) Democrats 65 and older thought their party was doing at least a good job of standing up for its traditional positions. Just 41% of Democratic seniors feel that way today.

The Issues — Advantage Democrats

The Bush agenda is affecting the image of both political parties. The president’s education plan has allowed the GOP to gain significant ground on what had been a Democratic strong suit. But if anything, Bush’s policies on the environment have worsened the GOP’s already poor image on that issue. By about a two-to-one margin (51%-25%), the public believes the Democrats can do a better job of protecting the environment.

Overall, the GOP holds a slight edge on just one major issue– foreign policy (39%-34%). Neither party holds a clear advantage on energy policy, education or taxes. Democrats are seen as better able to handle Social Security, maintain economic prosperity, strike the proper balance between the economy and environment, and protect the environment.

Despite Bush’s success in moving his tax cut through Congress, the GOP has been unable to seize the advantage on that issue. Perhaps more important, the Democrats have slightly increased their lead on maintaining economic prosperity over the past two years, and now hold an 11-point edge (44%-33%). And as Democrats have added to their formidable advantage on protecting the environment, they also are seen as the party able to strike the right balance between maintaining economic growth and protecting the environment.

Still, Bush’s emphasis on education has enabled the GOP to dramatically reshape its image on that issue, which is among the public’s top concerns. Just two years ago, Democrats held a 52%-29% lead on education; since then, the GOP has gained seven points and the Democrats have lost 14 points to put the two parties in a virtual tie.

Energy # 1 Problem

Energy concerns now top the public’s list of the most important problem facing the country. Fully 22% cite energy-related issues, such as rising gas and heating prices, when asked in an open-ended format to name the nation’s most important problem. This issue wasn’t even on the public’s radar screen until February of this year, and concern is up significantly since then (4% then vs. 22% now).

Concern over morality, ethics and family values, which topped the list in February, has fallen off somewhat in recent months. Today 6% cite this as the most important problem facing the country, placing it behind education (8%) and the economy (7%) and just ahead of unemployment (5%) and teen violence (5%).

Men and women differ substantially in their views on this matter. Men are much more likely than women to cite the energy crisis as the country’s most important problem (28% vs. 16%). And men are much more concerned than women about economic issues overall, including energy: 50% point to economic issues, compared to only 32% of women. Women are more focused than men on education, teen violence, health care, and crime.

While Republicans and Democrats may not agree on the best approach to dealing with the nation’s energy woes, they do agree that this is currently the most important problem facing the country — 20% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats place energy at the top of their list, as do 22% of independents.

Poor, Minorities Most Affected

Washington’s energy policy debate may not be resonating beyond the Beltway, but Americans clearly are feeling the effects of energy price hikes and, to a lesser degree, regional supply shortages. And this is having an impact on a wide range of activities, from people’s driving habits to their choice of vehicles.

Overall, about half of Americans see the rising price of gasoline as a serious problem and four-in-ten say the same about higher costs for electricity and other home utilities. But the effects are greatest on those with lower incomes, as well as members of minority groups.

More than six-in-ten of those with annual family incomes of less than $20,000 — and a solid majority of those with incomes of under $50,000 — call rising gas prices a serious problem. Better than two-thirds of African-Americans (69%) also regard this as a serious problem.

Just 39% of those with annual incomes of at least $50,000 call high gas prices a serious problem; most in this group see it as a minor problem (45%) or no problem at all (16%). While blacks overwhelmingly regard gas prices as a major problem, whites are split — 46% see it as serious, while 39% say it is minor and 15% believe it is not a problem.

The same pattern is evident in attitudes toward rising home utility costs. More than half (52%) of those with annual incomes of below $20,000 rate this as a serious problem — the only income category where a majority feels this way. Among those at the other end of the income scale — people with annual family incomes above $75,000 — relatively few (29%) regard higher home utility costs as a serious problem, while most (52%) regard it as a minor problem.

The regional nature of the nation’s various energy problems is also reflected in how severely people are impacted. A majority of those in the Midwest (58%), where gas prices are generally higher than elsewhere, rate that as a serious problem; fewer than half of those living in other regions rate rising gas prices as very serious.

Thus far, shortages of electricity and other energy supplies have been largely confined to California, so a relatively small percentage of survey respondents nationwide (16%) rate energy shortfalls as a serious problem. Not surprisingly, four-in-ten Californians rate that situation as serious. Majorities of Golden State residents also see the rising price of gas (55%) and spikes in home utility costs (52%) as serious problems.

Most Adjust Thermostats

Though the nation is not struggling with gas lines or widespread electricity shortages, energy problems are putting a crimp in the lifestyles of most Americans. Solid majorities in all income categories and age groups say they have been adjusting thermostats to cut energy costs. This practice is as prevalent in the Midwest (70%) and South (69%) as it is in California (69%).

Rising gas prices are also affecting the habits of the vast majority of Americans, either by inducing them to shop around for lower prices or to cut back on driving altogether. But income differences are clearly evident in whether people are changing their driving habits. Fully six-in-ten of those with annual family incomes under $30,000 say they are driving less to save money on gas; just 39% of those with annual incomes of at least $75,000 have limited their driving. Similarly, those with lower incomes are much more likely than those with higher incomes to cut back on summer travel plans and car-pool to work.

Parents also have been hit hard by energy problems. They are more likely than non-parents to rate higher gas prices and home utility costs as a serious problem. And more parents are altering their behavior as a result — 39% of parents say they have changed summer travel plans to cut back on long-distance driving, compared to 26% of non-parents.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are also political differences in how people are coping with higher energy costs. Those who voted for Al Gore in the 2000 election are more likely than Bush voters to engage in several efforts to conserve energy and cut costs, including lowering their thermostats and cutting back on driving.

When it comes to considering the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles, however, independents take the lead. Better than four-in-ten independents (44%) say they have thought about buying a car that gets better gas mileage; just 30% of both Republicans and Democrats say they have considered buying a more fuel-efficient car.

Energy Policy Divisions

The public is conflicted over several energy-related issues, including the tradeoffs between energy development and environmental protection, and expanded exploration versus conservation. But on one key point in the energy debate, there is broad agreement. By nearly a two-to-one margin (56%-31%), Americans say that securing long-range energy supplies is more important than finding a fix to the current energy crunch.

Some leading Democrats have argued that Bush’s plan overlooks immediate concerns in favor of long-term supplies, but that criticism appears to be falling mostly on deaf ears even within the Democratic Party. By a 12-point margin (49%-37%) Democrats say long-term energy problems should take precedence over short-term needs. Solid majorities of Republicans (67%) and independents (57%) also endorse a long-term approach.

On other issues, the public is far more divided. By a narrow 49%-42% margin, Americans say that developing energy sources should take precedence over environmental protection. But a slight plurality (49%) rates energy conservation as a higher priority than expanded exploration, mining and drilling. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to give greater priority to developing new energy sources over either protecting the environment or conserving existing resources.

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64%) say developing new energy sources should take precedence over protecting the environment; just 40% of Democrats and 47% of independents agree. Most Republicans (61%) also believe the expansion of energy exploration ranks as more important than increased conservation. Here, the gap is even wider. By nearly a two-to-one margin (62%-32%), Democrats favor increased conservation over expanded energy development. Independents back conservation over increasing exploration by 54%-42%.

Women Favor Conservation

Gender and age are also important factors in attitudes on energy policy. While men and older Americans tend to place greater priority on energy development, women and younger people believe that environmental considerations and conservation should take precedence.

By 52%-38%, men favor developing new energy sources over protecting the environment, and by a similar margin (53%-41%) they support increased exploration and drilling over conservation. Women are divided over whether new energy supplies or environmental protection rates as a higher priority (46% environment, 45% energy supplies). But women, by a substantial margin (57%-36%) favor more conservation over expanded energy exploration.

Americans under age 50 narrowly support environmental protection over developing new energy supplies (50%-45%), and favor conservation over more exploration by a more substantial margin (54%-40%). People over 50, by contrast, strongly back developing new energy sources over protecting the environment (55%-31%) and increased exploration over conservation (52%-40%).

Bush’s Middling Reviews

As one might expect, the public views Bush’s approach for dealing with energy problems through a partisan prism. Nearly eight-in-ten Republicans (78%) express at least some confidence in the president’s ability to handle energy problems, compared to 36% of Democrats and 52% of independents.

Bush’s plan is playing best in the South, where more than six-in-ten (61%) say they have at least some confidence in the president’s approach. But a majority of those in the West (53%) say they have little or no confidence in the president on energy.

Differences based on gender and age over
how to solve the nation’s energy problems have not figured into Bush’s ratings — in most groups, about half of respondents express confidence in the president. A major exception is African-Americans — just 36% voice confidence in the president, compared to 56% of whites — but blacks generally rate Bush’s performance more critically than whites.

Bush’s release of his comprehensive energy plan on May 17 had virtually no impact on evaluations of his approach to the problem, which is another sign that the public is not yet fully engaged by the policy debate. About the same proportion of Americans expressed at least some confidence in Bush before the plan’s unveiling (May 15-16) as after its release (May 17-20).

Gas Prices Dominate News Interest

Gas prices are clearly the month’s top news story, and this story has attracted considerable interest for a year or more. This month, interest in gas prices has been particularly strong in the Midwest, where prices have generally been among the nation’s highest. More than seven-in-ten people in the Midwest followed this story very closely. In the West, where California’s electricity shortfall is dominating the news, only 50% followed gas prices very closely.

About a third of the public (34%) followed reports about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely. This is largely unchanged from last month. Men paid more attention than women to this story (42% vs. 28%), with men age 50 and older paying the most attention (58%).

Also, about a third of Americans (32%) followed the delay in McVeigh’s execution. Nearly half of African-Americans (47%) followed this story very closely, compared to 31% of whites.

The president’s new energy policy was followed by about one-fifth (22%) of the public. Interest increased somewhat after Bush gave his May 17 speech unveiling the plan — 28% followed it very closely from May 17-20, compared to 17% who paid very close attention May 15-16. Almost twice as many men followed the story as did women.

Only 16% of the public paid very close attention to the trial and conviction of a Ku Klux Klansman for the bombing of a black church in 1963. Four-in-ten blacks followed this story compared to only 12% of whites.

Bush’s announcement of support for a national missile defense system attracted very close attention from 15% of Americans. Again, many more men than women followed this story very closely (23% vs. 8%). Not surprisingly, more conservative Republicans followed this story (20%) than members of other party and ideological groups.

Just one-in-ten Americans paid close attention to the controversy surrounding Bob Kerrey’s role in the death of unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War. The age gap in attention to this story shows that younger people have limited interest in revisiting the history of this conflict. Nearly one-fifth (19%) of Americans 65 and older paid very close attention to the Kerrey story, compared to just 3% of those under age 30.