It isn’t as easy as “drill, baby, drill” anymore. Energy messaging in political campaigns has gotten more complicated and nuanced since the well-known Republican battle cry in the 2008 elections. Today there are many more catchphrases in every politician’s playbook.
President Obama and his Republican challengers have all touted an “all of the above” energy strategy, claiming different definitions. It’s almost hard to keep track. One thing’s for sure, though: With gasoline prices already averaging $3.76 per gallon nationwide and headed higher, the mudslinging is just beginning.
National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders say that Obama has the upper hand so far. More than 50 percent of Insiders say the president is winning the messaging war on energy at this point in the 2012 campaign.
“The Republicans have been too busy attacking each other to produce a coherent message. The only part they are winning on is the Keystone pipeline,” said one Insider.
Many Insiders agreed that the Keystone XL pipeline argument has been the most effective message for the GOP, ever since the Obama administration delayed and then rejected a permit for the project, which would deliver 700,000 barrels of oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries every day. TransCanada, the company planning the project, has announced it will start building the southern portion from Oklahoma to Texas while applying for a new permit to build the rest of the 1,700-mile pipeline. Obama quickly endorsed the start of the project, undermining the GOP’s messaging in some ways and suggesting he was never against the pipeline project, just the arbitrary deadline imposed by Congress for a decision on the permit.
“The GOP put most of their eggs in the Keystone basket, and when the WH welcomed the domestic end of it, they pretty much ruined that strategy,” wrote one Insider.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum are no longer the only ones talking about more drilling. With Obama touting increased domestic oil and gas development in various speeches across the country, the GOP message goes from “you’re not drilling” to “you’re not drilling enough”—a much harder sell.
Still, 41 percent of Insiders say Republicans are winning the messaging war arguing that as gas prices continue to soar, the GOP will come out on top on this issue.
“It’s not so much the brilliance of their strategy, but Republicans have the upper hand in the face of rising gasoline prices in a down economy,” said one Insider.
A couple of Insiders abstained from voting, arguing that neither Obama nor his GOP opponents have made a successful case.
“Today, neither side has the advantage and that is why both are scrambling to find the political high ground,” said one Insider. “That will change after prices peak over $4 a gallon and then the Republicans will likely gain the upper hand.”
Asked about the overall most effective messages being delivered on the campaign trail, however, Insiders said the public best responds to simple messages such as those relating to the Keystone XL pipeline and more drilling.
Many Insiders said that the "all of the above" approach now presented in several different ways by both Obama and GOP candidates makes the public "feel good," which is what matters when it comes to messaging.
Still, Insiders argued that less-complex messaging resonates best.
"Most effective is the argument that Keystone will lower prices by bringing Americans cheaper oil. Even if it isn't true, it seems to resonate with people on a common-sense basis," said one Insider.
President Obama's lectures to the public about there being "no silver bullet" might be the most truthful, but they won't necessarily be the most effective as gas prices continue to soar.
This, one Insider said, "is not very satisfying to the average voter."
Who is winning the messaging war on energy in the presidential campaign?
- President Obama 54%
- Republicans 41%
- Neither 5%
“The President's coopting of "all of the above," plus his focus on opportunities from new, clean energy, and a little oil company bashing, are effectively undermining the R's attacks among independents.”
“The Republicans have been too busy attacking each other to produce a coherent message. The only part they are winning on is the Keystone pipeline. And the Bill Clinton endorsement of it was probably a trial balloon to permit the White House to modify its views before the election.”
“Obama is starting to fire back but for much of 2011, Republican's dominated the media stage. Democrats were on the defensive until recently. For the 112th Congress, the well is poisoned for much of any bipartisan action.”
“As a snap-shot in time, POTUS is ahead, because energy hasn't been a real issue to most Americans. But the tipping point is in sight as prices approach $4. At that point there is nothing he can do to win the messaging war...especially with a feckless record to build upon.”
“While Newt Gingrich's line that you can't put a gun rack in a Volt is the best soundbite, President Obama again looks like the only grownup in the room.”
“The GOP put most of their eggs in the Keystone basket, and when the WH welcomed the domestic end of it, they pretty much ruined that strategy”
“He has had surrogates from Capitol Hill on news leads saying they have more oil and gas drilling than in the prior four years, and more federal lands open that previous Administrations. The President also allowed a portion of the XL pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas proceed. So I think he has the edge at the moment.”
“With drilling at a then year high, the US producing more oil than it imports and gas prices still high, its clear that drill, baby, drill isn't an energy policy.”
“The President is making a compelling case that there are no short term solutions for the long-term issue of higher gas prices. He's pushing long-term strategies designed to give consumers fuel and vehicle choices, so they won't have to pay the high prices that are an inevitability now that oil is so expensive and risky to extract. He's also doing a good job hammering on the oil companies for continuing to receive subsidies in the face of record profits. On the other hand, the GOP doesn't seem to be getting much traction in trying to blame Obama for high gas prices -- people understand these are high for myriad reasons, and that the President has little power to adjust them.”
“It's not so much the brilliance of their strategy, but Republicans have the upper hand in the face of rising gasoline prices in a down economy.”
“I hate to say it, because it is complete nonsense, but Republicans have been effective in suggesting high gas prices are somehow related to the President's unwillingness to immediately approve the Keystone pipeline.”
“With gasoline prices up, the President gets the blame, and he's not doing anything to deflect that. Republicans are promising action; Obama is blaming big oil.”
“The failure of Solyndra and so many other of our supposed new-energy role models along with the nixing of the Keystone XL Pipeline makes the president's plan look like it is based on fairy dust. It's easy for the Republicans to win this messaging war.”
“It's hard for the President to convince the public that he's really in favor of "all of the above" when he's disapproved the Keystone pipeline and drastically limited oil and gas exploration on publc lands. The Republicans have an easier case to make.”
“Just look at polling data, renewables in 80 and 90 percent range with both Republicans, Independents and Democrats. Fossil fuels only resonate with Tea Party which cannot elect a President”
“The Republicans are just barely winning. The script will be the same as last year... 'The problem is greedy oil companies!' 'No, its locked up natural resources!' 'No, its greedy speculators!' 'No, its mindless bureaucrats!' ”
"Neither, as both are not very substantive...”
“Today, neither side has the advantage and that is why both are scrambling to find the political high ground. Polling suggests that most Americans reject the White House position that not much can be done to influence oil prices, and thus those at the pump. The President is perceived as the head of the government. Yet, a majority of Americans are not yet feeling a household budgetary impact (see WSJ poll of 3/5). That will change after prices peak over $4 a gallon and then the Republicans will likely gain the upper hand.”
What do you consider the most effective arguments being made on energy in the campaigns? What do you think is getting through to the public the most?
"All of the above is fine and good, but Americans understand that wind isn't powering them to work every day. "Drill now" and Keystone XL will become rallying cries that drown everything else out, much like Summer '08 when prices "only" hit $4.12 and then, not until July."
"I haven't seen many effective arguments by either party. They are so busy slinging mud, the critical issues of long term energy security, rate and price stability, water availability and environmental protection are being subordinated by sound bites."
"The President's energy message focuses on the future and shows a "can do" spirit, new technologies will create jobs; the Republican message looks to the past and is rooted in fear, embracing a 19th Century fuel for the 21st Century, implying that future U.S. industrial competitivesness depends on dirty, inefficient 50-70 year old coal plants"
"When you have high gas prices, the American people understand drilling. They see through "renewable" power that has no impact at the pump."
"All of the above" -- very inclusive and feels good. Both parties are trying to capture public's attention with the essence of its message."
"I think the President is doing a good job of explaining that there is no silver bullet, which is certainly true (at least in the near term), but is not very satisfying to the average voter."
"Interestingly both side are making the same meta arguments: 1) We need to remove our dependence on foriegn oil: 2) We need all of the above in the US to do so. And the public agrees. The details are where the differences lie. And those arguments are yet to be won - by either side."
"It hasn't been made yet... "If more drilling worked to lower natural gas prices why won't it lower oil prices?" There is a reason why the markets are different but the explanation takes longer than most listeners attention span."
"Increasing production of oil and gas, increased renewables, and fuel efficiency are Obama's strongest arguments. Republicans strongest are the high price of gasoline and uncertainty about Keystone XL."
"Public likes to hear about long-term solutions that will give them a choice in whether to pay high gas prices. Public also repsonding to points about oil subsidies and speculation, and the possibility of tapping the SPR. But even if the public gets that this is a long term issue, they still want prices to come down -- it's too soon to tell how that frustration will play out in the election.
National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of energy policy experts. They include:
Jeff Anderson, Paul Bailey, Kenneth Berlin, Andrew J. Black, Denise Bode, Kevin Book, Pat Bousliman, David Brown, Neil Brown, Stephen Brown, Kateri Callahan, McKie Campbell, Guy Caruso, Paul Cicio, Douglas Clapp, Eileen Claussen, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Cuttino, Kyle Danish, Lee Dehihns, Robbie Diamond, David Di Martino, Bob Dinneen, Sean Donahue, Jeff Duncan, John Felmy, Mike Ference, David Foster, Josh Freed, Don Furman, Paul Gilman, Richard Glick, Kate Gordon, Chuck Gray, Jason Grumet, Christopher Guith, Lewis Hay, Fritz Hirst, Jeff Holmstead, David Holt, Skip Horvath, Bob Irvin, Bill Johnson, Gene Karpinski, Joseph T. Kelliher, Brian Kennedy, Kevin Knobloch, David Kreutzer, Fred Krupp, Tom Kuhn, Con Lass, Mindy Lubber, Frank Maisano, Drew Maloney, Roger Martella, John McArther, Mike McKenna, Bill McKibben, Kristina Moore, Richard Myers, Aric Newhouse, Frank O'Donnell, Mike Olson, T. Boone Pickens, Thomas Pyle, Hal Quinn, Rhone Resch, Barry Russell, Joseph Schultz, Bob Simon, Scott Sklar, Bill Snape, Jeff Sterba, Christine Tezak, Susan Tierney, Andrew Wheeler, Brian Wolff, Franz Wuerfmannsdobler and Todd Young.
This article appears in the March 7, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.