How the Republican Field Talks about Energy

tl;dr: No Perry = no energy debate in 2012.

After the passing mentions of energy in last Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, I wondered if I could measure how big a deal this topic is to the candidates. Do they see it as a big issue or a small one? What’s the balance of attention between fossil fuels and renewables? Does anybody still talk about carbon? While the weekend realigned the field quite a bit – Bachmann won Ames, Perry’s in, Pawlenty’s out – the question remained, so I went at it today.

I wanted as like-for-like a comparison as I could get on how the candidates are thinking about energy, so I used their campaign websites: Everybody’s got one, the sites should reflect carefully considered positions, and they’re not subject to reporting bias. I looked at the sites of the nine candidates who ran in Ames plus write-in Rick Perry, and I did two things. First, I ran Google searches on terms like “energy,” “nuclear,” and “renewable” to see how many pages on each site mentioned each, taking this as a proxy for importance (I used searches on non-energy terms like “education” and “national defense” as a baseline). Second, I looked at the sites’ formal position statements to see which candidates had ones on energy, and if so what they focused on. Here’s what I found:

  • Everybody name-checks energy as a topic… In fact, most candidates’ sites register more hits on “energy” than on “education,” “health care,” “immigration,” or “national defense.” (I’m not including raw data on this because some sites put these terms into their navigation, making them show up on every page and messifying my data, but when these cases are removed the trend is clear.)
  • …but only half elevate it. Only five candidates call out a specific position statement on energy. We can bring it up to six with Romney, who embeds four sentences on energy discussion within his “job creation” statement. To the extent that word count tells us something about the importance of a given issue, note that the energy-focused statements have 53% of the words of the average position statement…
  • It’s mostly about fossil fuels – specifically, expensive gasoline. Every candidate except margin-of-error guy Thad McCotter has a reference to oil, coal, or natural gas somewhere on his or her site; the median number of mentions is 4.5. Most of these are about the high price of gasoline (note that Bachmann’s formal position statement on energy is titled “Affordable Energy.”) In contrast, only six of 10 candidates’ sites ever use the world “nuclear” in an energy context (median of 1 mention), and just four ever use the words “solar,” “wind,” or “renewable” (again, in an energy context; median of 0 mentions). Of the six position statements that include energy, four mention nuclear and three mention renewables.
  • Carbon looks like a third rail. Only Perry’s and Paul’s sites have any hits on “carbon,” “global warming,” or “greenhouse gas,” and they’re all from republished news articles – meaning that zero Republican candidates proactively address carbon on their web sites. Note that while this means none of them explicitly call out support for carbon regulation (not exactly a popular Republican position), none of them proactively hate on it either, which is something of a surprise. My take is that carbon has become a third-rail issue that nobody can benefit from, so candidates try to avoid being on record on the topic.
  • The EPA gets particular scorn. Of the six sites with formal position statements on energy, four of them refer negatively to the EPA and/or environmental regulation, and two of them – from Paul and Gingrich – call to shut the EPA down altogether. (There’s one contrary position: Although McCotter doesn’t say anything explicitly about the EPA, his energy statement advocates environmental protection, so one can assume he’d be pro…)
  • Perry is the only candidate playing offense on energy. My philosophy of electoral politics is that candidates can choose to play offense or defense on any given issue. If they’re on offense, they’re trying to use the issue as a differentiator, so they proactively bring it up and try to score points with it. If they’re on defense, they try to avoid mentioning it unless the opponent does. The only Republican candidate playing offense on energy seems to be Rick Perry: His site is full of accolades about Texas’s high level of wind penetration and how shale gas has contributed to the state’s economy. Bachmann runs a very narrow energy play focused on the cost of gasoline, and to everyone else energy looks like a secondary or tertiary issue.

My big takeaway is that energy is going to be a non-issue in the 2012 campaign unless Perry becomes the Republican nominee. I don’t think Obama will make a big deal out of energy: It risks raising too many negatives, like lackluster green job creation and Solyndra’s loan guarantee debacle. If Perry makes the general election, however, it’s a different ball game: Texas’s economy is so tied to oil and gas that energy must be a part of his economic message, and his wind-friendliness could help attract independents during the inevitable tack toward the center. Without Perry, however, no candidate has much to gain from emphasizing energy in 2012.

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