When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a surprise campaign stop last week at the shuttered headquarters of solar-panel firm Solyndra, his campaign aimed to use the now-bankrupt company as an example of President Obama’s faulty investments in clean energy.
Most of National Journal’s Energy & Environment Insiders think the strategy is working.
Fifty-five percent of Insiders say that the GOP and Romney campaign strategy to criticize Obama for backing the California solar firm is more effective than the Obama campaign’s response that Romney would cede the clean-energy space to countries like China.
The whole scandal is just the perfect punching bag for the campaign, Insiders said.
“The optics of Solyndra are too ugly for most voters to not buy some level of malfeasance,” said one Insider.
Romney’s visit to the Solyndra headquarters came after his campaign’s weeklong push to depict Obama as clueless about the economy and job creation.
“President Obama was here to tout this building and this business as a symbol of the success of his stimulus,” Romney said outside the Solyndra site. “Well, you can see that it’s a symbol of something very different today.”
Insiders said that the Romney campaign’s message could resonate with voters who are concerned about the economy and want look to Obama’s policies as drivers of economic uncertainty.
“As long as the American public is concerned about the economy, President Obama will not win this argument,” said one Insider.
Still, 40 percent of Insiders say that the Obama campaign’s response to Romney’s attacks could be just as effective.
After the Romney campaign released an ad targeting Obama for backing Solyndra last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney hit back, saying that while others might be willing to surrender clean-energy development to other countries, Obama is not.
“We will not cede the industries of the future to the Chinese or the Europeans or the Brazilians or the Indians or any other nation on earth,” Carney said.
That kind of message will be effective, Insiders said, because voters outside of Washington don’t know or care much about Solyndra, but they are interested in combating America’s diminishing global dominance in many industries.
“Outside of the Beltway, the polling has shown that voters don’t really care that an isolated project went bankrupt. Voters are more concerned about future economic opportunities and jobs being lost to other nations’ more aggressive actions,” said one Insider.
Now that gas prices have been dropping, Insiders were deeply divided about which energy issues will be the most prevalent in campaigns heading into November. Twenty percent of Insiders said that subsidies for oil and gas companies would be a big issue in campaigns, while 15 percent voted for natural-gas drilling and fracking regulations, nearly 13 percent voted for clean energy, and nearly 8 percent said offshore drilling. The rest—45 percent—chose “other,” listing a series of possible campaign issues such as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, energy independence, an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and many more, including gas prices themselves.
Insiders said that although gas prices are dropping, they are by no means low enough for voters.
"Prices are still the issue. High prices have taken their bite and the wound has not yet healed. America isn't yet configured to think of $3.75 per gallon as cheap," said one Insider.
Overall, Insiders agreed that there won’t just be one energy issue circulating among candidates ahead of the election, bringing together the vast array of local interests from across the United States.
Which message will resonate more with voters in the November general election?
- the GOP and the Romney campaign criticizing President Obama for backing the now-bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra 55%
- the Obama campaign response that Romney would be willing to cede clean-energy space to China and others, while Obama is not 40%
- Other 5%
The GOP and the Romney campaign criticizing President Obama for backing the now-bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra
“In a deeply anti-Washington political environment colored by never-ending discussions on tax and spending policy, Solyndra will continue to have traction. The public's response to the GSA's antics drive the point.”
“The election will be a referendum on the president's record and the decisions he has made. Solyndra is example A of the president's failed policies.”
“The Obama issue is based on 'facts' while the Romney issue is based on perception”
“With the recession headed towards a double dip, voters want affordable energy and jobs - not expensive renewables that appear to be more bust than boom.”
“Playing the China card rarely translates into votes.”
“What, will Obama argue we didn't give enough money to Solyndra?”
“Solyndra is a powerful symbol of wasteful spending, yawning federal deficits, and ineffective stimulus - the charge that Romney wants to surrender to China does not wash."
The Obama campaign response that Romney would be willing to cede clean-energy space to China and others, while Obama is not
“The public neither understands nor cares about Solyndra. But they do see renewable energy as the future and want America to lead in this area.”
“You can't lose by including China as a boogeyman in any message.”
“Despite the Romney campaign's efforts to make Solyndra another Teapot Dome scandal, that dog won't hunt. By contrast, Americans are concerned about losing out economically to China, so the issue of promoting domestic clean-energy industries will resonate more strongly.”
“Losing the science fair at home is likely to matter less, from a messaging perspective, than diminishing global dominance, even if the US is unlikely to ever compete successfully on green energy with China.”
“Romney's big problem on public equity is he did it too and those companies went belly up. The double standard isn't going to fly.”
“While the Romney Solyndra attacks reinforce bad sterotypes about government, clean energy is popular among voters, represents a growing sector of the global economy, governors of all stripes want in on the act and big businesses are jumping in. Even Karl Rove, whose superpac advertises relentlessly about Solyndra has announced support for renewing the production tax credit for wind. Team Romney runs the risk of opposing an economic winner -- not smart business sense for a guy who relies on his business cred.“
“Appearing outside Solyndra was a good one-day press stunt, but I don't see how maintaining the focus ultimately helps Romney. In Solyndra, Obama was willing to lose money in order to create jobs. At Bain, Romney was willing to lose jobs in order to make money. Does that narrative work for Romney in swing industrial states? I bet he moves on to something else.”
“The American people are growing tired of Solyndra and they aren't personally blaming the President notwithstanding the massive spending by those affiliated with the fossil fuels industry. While I don't thing the President's argument tying clean energy investments to beating China out economically is going to win the day either, Americans still strongly support clean energy investments.”
“Now with the bankruptcy of Konarka, a solar company that received State of MA funds when Romney was governor, the Solyndra issue will just be a "you did it too" game of mudslinging between the two.”
“Neither - most voters don't care about Solyndra (if they've even heard of it), and practically no voters care about losing to China. The messages that resonate will be Romney's hypocrisy and flip-flopping on (insert issue), and Obama's "failure" to create jobs. Which resonates more is impossible to predict.”
With gas prices dropping, which will be the most prevalent energy campaign issue?
- clean energy 12.5%
- offshore drilling 7.5%
- natural gas drilling/fracking regulations 15%
- subsidies for oil and gas companies 20%
- other (please specify) 45%
"Both candidates will focus on clean energy the most - Romney because he (now, hypocritically) smells blood, and Obama because he actually has a strong record to stand on -- and because Americans, despite hundreds of millions spent by conservatives to date, prefer clean to dirty energy."
"The highest polling issue after gasoline prices is clean energy, which Americans overwhelmingly support."
"Subsidies for oil and gas are an old target. Natural gas/fracking is a state issue (despite Republicans trying to take it national). Offshore drilling is only relevant for some states (OH? NV? IA?) but clean energy is everywhere and growing. Stolid support for only oil and gas doesn't appeal to independents or moderates -- populations you have to win nationally to be elected."
"All politics are local and voters in Gulf states will know that their economies could have been better if permitting had not been slowed."
natural gas drilling/fracking regulations
"The environmentalists have a new agenda item (now that the biggest power plant regulations are substantively done) and that's the environmental threat of hydraulic fracturing. If new regulations slow down the pace of drilling and increase its costs, that will help renewables, who are facing huge headwinds from modestly priced natural gas."
"This is becoming a very local issue which is why it may matter more than others...."
"In battleground states like Ohio, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, voters interested in job creation will want to know if the President's agencies are trying to stop hydraulic fracturing, a key driver of the oil and gas boom."
"The left will zero-in on natural gas export issues. Sierra Club has already started to do so. Why? Because the ability to export gas means more production (fracking) domestcially."
"Natural gas is a game changer for the economy and for energy independence. While the White House is attempting to appear supportive of the industry, their actions and their anti fracking allies speak louder. THis could be a very good issue for Republicans."
subsidies for oil and gas companies
"The fossil fuel industry is one of the major sources of all of the money flowing into the Superpacs following Citizens United. These companies are clearly hoping to buy a President and a Congress that will protect their subsidies and delay the emergence of clean energy companies able to compete with them."
"The hypocrisy on this issue really smells for Romney."
"While voters may be less angry due to falling gas prices, providing huge subsidies to oil and gas companies at a time when ordinary Americans continue to suffer economically is an issue that draws a sharp contrast between Republicans and Democrats."
other (please specify)
"Prices are still the issue. High prices have taken their bite and the wound has not yet healed. America isn't yet configured to think of $3.75 per gallon has cheap."
"GAS PRICES! The most prevalent energy campaign issue will be gas prices. They are still almost double what they were when the President took office. They are still dragging the economy down. They will still have the public's attention in the fall. The President's campaign is clearly still worried about this - just look at the defensive posture they are taking."
"Gasoline prices and foreign oil -- with both parties claiming to have the solution."
"Though gasoline prices are dropping, they are not low. Gasoline price will still be the prevalent energy campaign issue."
""Energy independence" is always a popular campaign issue, every President since Nixon has promised it; it does not matter that energy independence is unachieveable and probably undesirable, the false promise appeals to voters' hearts, not their brains, and voting does not involve brains."
"Energy independence is always the most important campaign issue."
"Keystone. The clear jobs message here will make this an issue the President will want to make go away."
"Really it's all of the above and more. Stable gasoline prices now and long term stable enegry supplies is what the country needs. What is the best mixture of ways to get there remains in flux."
"who will do the best job keeping energy affordable and developing responsibly American energy resources and the jobs that go with it."
"Romney will continue to pound away at Obama for his clean energy failures and point out the impacts of the regulations on coal, oil, and natural gas production. Obama will continue to spout his all of the above rhetoric. And watch for gasoline prices to resurface if there is turmoil in the Middle East, specifically if Egypt defends itself against Iran."
"In the states that really matter, it will be the Obama Administration's war on coal. Look at the top five battleground states -- Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana. Coal is important in all but Florida, and we'll be hearing a lot about the President's war on coal in these states."
"Vast majority of focus will be on Keystone XL & Solyndra with POTUS on defense. With oil & gas driving the economy right now (especially in battleground states like CO, OH, PA) there's not going to be much focus on "clean" energy."
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, Michael Bromwich, David Brown, Neil Brown, Stephen Brown, Kateri Callahan, McKie Campbell, Guy Caruso, Neil Chatterjee, Paul Cicio, Douglas Clapp, Eileen Claussen, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Cuttino, Kyle Danish, Lee Dehihns, Robbie Diamond, David Di Martino, Bob Dinneen, Sean Donahue, Tom Dower, 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, Linda Stuntz, Christine Tezak, Susan Tierney, Andrew Wheeler, Brian Wolff, Franz Wuerfmannsdobler, and Todd Young.
This article appears in the June 7, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.