WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats seem to be living on different planets when it comes to how to meet U.S. energy needs.
Republicans overwhelmingly push for more oil drilling. Democrats back conservation and new energy sources such as wind and solar power.
A survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that the polarized positions on energy that have divided Congress and emerged in the presidential campaign also run deep among the public.
While majorities in both parties say energy is an important issue, the poll shows that partisan identification is closely tied to people's perceptions of the causes of the country's energy problems and possible solutions. No other demographic factor — not race, age, gender or income level — is as consistently associated with opinions on energy as political party identification.
— Three of four Democrats surveyed report that a major reason for the county's energy problems is that industry does not do enough to support clean energy. By comparison, 43 percent of the Republicans questioned believe that.
— Three of four Republicans in the poll cite government limits on drilling as a major reason for energy problems, compared with 34 percent of Democrats.
Also, 85 percent say it is a serious problem that the United States needs to buy energy from other countries, but there's disagreement about why. Among Republicans in the poll, 65 percent say the U.S. does not produce enough domestic energy to meet demand. Yet just over half the Democrats say people use too much energy.
Even on areas where there's majority agreement, a partisan gap remains. For instance, there is broad backing for programs to help consumers learn to make more energy-efficient choices, but the support is 81 percent among Democrats and 57 percent among Republicans.
Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser with the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Clinton White House aide, said the results provide an unsettling snapshot of a partisan rift that affects every aspect of policy and politics. He said the big question is whether parties and candidates will acknowledge that they agree on a range of energy solutions and try to make progress, or keep up attacks intended to appeal to their political bases.
The poll, made possible by a grant to the AP-NORC Center from the Joyce Foundation, illuminates one driver of this campaign season's divisive political rhetoric: Both parties are playing to their bases. So it's no surprise that presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans push for more drilling for oil and natural gas, and President Barack Obama emphasizes renewable energy development as part of what he calls an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy.
Republicans also are shining a spotlight on the failure of Solyndra, a California solar company that received a half-billion dollar loan from the Obama administration and later went out of business. Just 4 in 10 Republicans support government incentive programs that give money to energy companies to help them develop alternative energy sources. Two-thirds of Democrats support such programs.
Overall, about 6 in 10 people questioned think the government should be deeply involved in finding solutions to the energy problems, with 4 in 10 saying the government should be "extremely" involved.
By 79 percent to 42 percent, Democrats were nearly twice as likely as Republicans to think the government should be involved. About half of Democrats in the poll think government should be "extremely" involved, compared with just one-quarter of Republicans.
The survey showed partisans hold different ideas on how the government should be involved. Democrats are more apt to favor incentive programs for consumers or energy companies. Republicans express support for education programs aimed at consumers and allowing more drilling for oil and gas.
Brent Sumsion of Soquel, Calif., a 63-year-old handyman and self-described independent Democrat, said he opposes offshore drilling. "It doesn't really solve anything. All it does is make more pollution," he said, adding that the government should do more to promote solar energy and even raise gas taxes if necessary to increase conservation.
Bobby Jones, also 63 and a mechanic from Seven Springs, N.C., supports increased drilling in order to cut dependence on foreign oil. "We have enough (oil and gas) in this country that we can drill for a while and get what we need," Jones said, adding that offshore drilling would help create badly needed jobs in eastern North Carolina.
Jones, an independent, backs Romney in the presidential election, in part because of energy policies, such as his support for a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.
Carol Browner, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency who was Obama's top energy and climate adviser, said the partisan divide over energy makes difficult it to have a thoughtful conversation about what makes sense for the country.
"Ultimately it doesn't matter if you are Democrat or Republican — you pay your energy bill, you buy your fuel-efficient car and you fill it up," Browner said. To that point, the poll found that 90 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans say they've done something in the last year to save energy.
The AP-NORC Center poll was conducted March 29 to April 25. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,008 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
AP-NORC poll: http://www.apnorc.org
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