When public officials get hyped about an issue, they usually become fodder for The Daily Show before they ever get voters fired up (see Howard Dean). Politicians have been polarizing the environment over the last twenty years, with Republicans increasingly arguing that climate change isn’t their problem and isn’t their party’s issue. Does the public believe this, or do they just think their leaders are full of hot air?
McCright, Xiao, and Dunlap set out to test this with data from the General Social Survey taken from 1974 to 2012, using a recurring question about whether respondents thought the government was spending too much, not enough, or just the right amount on environmental protection. They found there has always been a gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue with Democrats consistently supporting increased spending. However, while this gap held steady from 1974 to 1990, they also found that it started to grow substantially after 1990 as “conservative foundations, think tanks, and elites have mobilized to challenge the legitimacy of environmental problems.”
These findings support an argument political scientists calls “party sorting theory,” which says voters will respond to cues from political leaders as they choose which side to support. For major public issues like climate change, leadership is key— it looks like voters know how to follow where the wind blows.