Refuting A Big Election Lie: The Claim That Supporting Clean Energy Doomed House Democrats

By Chris Mooney | November 3, 2010 7:45 pm

Among post election stories, this reaction at Politico really left something wanting in the correlation-is-not-causation department:

House Democrats who voted for last year’s cap-and-trade bill took a beating last night. Nearly 30 (and counting) who cast ‘aye’ votes for Waxman-Markey were swept away on Tuesday’s anti-incumbent wave. The casualties ranged from 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher to freshman lawmakers like Betsy Markey, Mark Schauer and Tom Perriello.

The implication here is that in an election driven by economic anger, Democrats who had voted for the 2009 Waxman-Markey comprehensive climate and energy bill paid a devastating price. But there’s just one problem–it was an election driven by economic anger.. That means that voters overwhelmingly rejected political incumbents (read Democrats), but it also means that issues like climate and energy weren’t exactly at the front of their minds.

Pocketbook issues were. Jobs and taxes. And health care.

election jpegThe Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund has now done the definitive refutation of this bogus claim about the negative electoral consequences of voting for the 2009 climate bill–technically the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES. Their post–and accompanying figure, which I’m including here–show that both Democrats who voted for Waxman-Markey and also Democrats who voted against it sustained losses. Indeed, taken as a percentage, the latter (and much smaller) group actually fared far worse.

But in neither case was the outcome because of these candidates’ votes on climate and energy. Rather, it was because a ‘wave’ election swept in and punished Democrats across the board.

In other words–to quote a recurring truth of elections–it was the economy, stupid. It wasn’t the climate bill.

Read NRDC’s full post here.


Comments (12)

  1. A more relevant analysis is that Dems who were in competitive districts disproportionately voted against cap and trade.

  2. Chris Mooney

    sure that has a lot to do with the difference between the two groups of dems.

    but it doesn’t change the fact that one’s vote on ACES didn’t have much of anything to do with one’s reelection chances in most races.

  3. Bobito

    Those who voted for cap and trade generally came from liberal districts, I’m sure that had an affect. Also, cap and trade never really had a chance so it didnt get as much attention as obamacare and the economy.

  4. TomInAK

    I think it’s pretty obvious that Cap & Trade would have had devastating economic impacts if passed and implimented, and that the voters recognized that potential impact and took it in to account when casting their votes. It is accurate to say, as Chris does, that “it’s the economy, stupid.” It is also accurate to say that Cap & Trade is an economic issue that probably hurt those who supported it.

  5. Chris Mooney

    @5 actually your claim contradicts the body of reputable studies about such a bill’s economic effects.

  6. TomInAK

    @ Chris: Reputability is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s simple common sense that radically jacking up the cost of almost everything that powers modern industrial society, while simultaneously preventing the development of realitic alternatives, will severly stunt economic activity. We had a little bit of a dry run when oil prices spiked a few years back, and it wasn’t fun. Ironically, the ones who complained the most loudly, at least among the people I know, were the ones who tended to support Cap & Trade.

  7. Gimlet

    I don’t think most voters pay much attention to stuff that doesn’t pass – though if cap-and-trade had passed, it would have been brutal in this environment. It was the economy, but more. The Dems significantly underperformed traditional models based on the economy.

    This is good And combine with this:

  8. Cap and Trade? Ask a random person on the street what cap and trade is. Nobody voted on that issue.

    The main reason Democrats lost is the obvious one. The economy is in terrible shape. This is the answer the overwhelming majority of voters give when asked. It’s the answer non- voters give when asked, and it’s the reason political scientists were able to predict huge losses for the Democrats months before the election without ever considering polling data.

    Sixty-two percent of voters name the economy as their most important issue this year. Health care ranks a distant second, at 19 percent. Illegal immigration and Afghanistan follow at 8 and 7 percent.

  9. Chris Winter

    TomInAK wrote: “Reputability is in the eyes of the beholder.”

    Not really. A person or an organization acquires a reputation for reliability over time, by delivering information that proves to be correct.

    This is what the Congressional Budget Office has done, and its analysis of the ACES Act was that it would impose costs on the average consumer, but not exorbitant ones. (I forget the exact numbers.)

    There was also a study done by professors at MIT that said much the same, and its conclusions were repeatedly inflated by Republicans in Congress, despite the professors’ public admonition.

    “It’s simple common sense that radically jacking up the cost of almost everything that powers modern industrial society, while simultaneously preventing the development of realistic alternatives, will severely stunt economic activity.”

    Right. And when anyone proposes to do that, I’ll join you in throwing the book at them.

  10. Just a follow up: A better way to break this down would be to look at the % of Democrats from competitive districts who voted for Cap and Trade and lost their race. In other words, instead of looking at the entire pool of Dem candidates, look at just how the cap and trade vote might have affected Dems in competitive districts.

    Greenberg polling provides better light on this…Cap and Trade wasn’t much of a salient factor for voters in battleground states….see link below.

  11. Nullius in Verba

    “Not really. A person or an organization acquires a reputation for reliability over time, by delivering information that proves to be correct.”

    And presumably an organisation loses that reputation by repeatedly delivering information that proves to be incorrect, yes?

    Both the cost and the effectiveness of cap and trade depends on the cap. You can start with a high cap, calculate that it won’t cost much (because it won’t have any actual significant effect on emissions) and get the legislation passed. Then when it’s passed, you can reduce the cap, get more effect (although still not enough to make a real difference, because of China and India) at a far greater cost.

    We currently do not have any alternative renewable energy source (besides nuclear) that can compete with coal and gas without subsidies. To reduce emissions by any significant amount (like the 80% that many claim is needed) would increase the price of everything that requires energy to manufacture or deliver. If the energy component doubles in cost, that would constitute 8-10% of GDP. And since wealth accumulates, it would have an even greater effect on people’s net wealth further on down the line.
    To say that cap and trade wouldn’t cost a lot is effectively an admission that it would have no significant effect on emissions or climate.

    Listen to The Man himself:

    “Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket”

    “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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