WASHINGTON – Environmentalists critical of President Bush's record say they believe his policies will help get out the environmental vote for his Democratic opponent in 2004.
But while Democrats generally fare better than Republicans when it comes to the environment, polls show that few voters make their decision on a candidate based primarily on environmental issues.
"In the past, environmental members and environmentally concerned citizens haven’t necessarily used the environment as a voting issue, but because of the terrible record of this president we think that will change," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters (search).
A Harris poll survey last month asked voters to name the two most important issues confronting the government. Combining the two selections, voters ranked the environment 25th out of 43 issues.
A Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll from a few weeks earlier put the environment as voters' 13th most important issue, garnering 1 percent of the vote and ranking ahead of "North Korea," "Iran," "other" and "don't know."
But according to Los Angeles Times exit polls in 2000, among the 9 percent of voters who selected the environment as the top issue, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was favored 76 to 12 percent.
"If it's No. 1 for 3 to 6 percent of voters and it’s a close race, that's the margin," said Sierra Club (search) National Political Director Margaret Conway, who added that underestimating the political importance of the issue as a driving force for voters would be a mistake.
"Other issues such as the economy and Iraq and the war on terrorism far outrank the environment as the most important issue voters are thinking about," said polling expert Karlyn Bowman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (search), who acknowledged that a small number of voters can make the difference in a close race.
"That doesn't tell us what will happen on Election Day, of course, but at this point, there is no indication that the environment will be a top issue for voters," Bowman said.
Wagering on the importance of the environment as an issue next year, environmentalists have taken a number of steps to point out just how poorly they say Bush is doing on the topic. In its 2003 presidential report card, the League of Conservation Voters gave Bush an "F," the first failing grade it has ever awarded to a president.
Environmentalists have lodged several complaints, among them, that Bush administration regulations are written with an eye on the interests of big business. The Sierra Club has sued to get hold of meeting notes from industry lobbyists and business leaders who helped form energy policy through Vice President Dick Cheney's national task force.
The LCV says blackouts in August demonstrating weaknesses in the energy grid failed to ignite movement toward a comprehensive and sustainable energy policy, and say the president's policy is designed solely to provide "handouts, giveaways and subsidies for polluters and corporate special interests."
Several Democratic senators held up the confirmation of incoming Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt until they got the administration to agree to address several issues of importance to them, including air quality in New York City. White House concessions dissolved the opposition and Leavitt won confirmation 88-8.
Citing the "Orwellian language" of Bush initiatives like Healthy Forests and Clear Skies, Ed Kilgore, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council (search), an organization of moderate Democrats, said he thinks Republicans "can be pilloried on this issue."
"It’s a serious weakness of the administration. The Republican Party has become so extreme on this topic, most of them, that ... it would be easy for Democrats to seize the sensible middle ground on environmental issues," Kilgore said.
While Bush will likely do poorly with voters ranking the environment as the top priority, respondents in generic polls are split about how the president is faring on the environment. A June Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll showed 41 percent of respondents approved of Bush's handling of the environment while 40 percent disapproved.
The environment may not be "the silver bullet" for a 2004 Democratic victory, Kilgore acknowledged, but it is part of a broader message that could resonate with voters.
But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said few voters describe themselves as uncaring about the environment or fail to acknowledge the value of clean air and water.
But the environment is unlikely to be worth many votes in 2004, Sabato said, because "the economy's more important; Iraq's more important; and health care's more important."