The collision between Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry over climate change and the evolution of human life threatens to widen the central rift in the Republican electoral coalition even as it helps each man sharpen his image in the party’s crowded 2012 presidential field.
The confrontation represents more of a gamble for Huntsman, the former Utah governor lagging in the polls, than it does for Texas Gov. Perry, who immediately catapulted into the race’s top tier after entering it in mid-August. Although an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that carbon pollution is contributing to global climate change, and virtually all accept that an evolutionary process of natural selection explains the emergence of human life, polls show that most Republican voters second Perry’s rejection of both beliefs.
“When you look at the people who will represent the core of these primaries, the doubts about global warming are gospel, and a more [religiously] traditionalist view about evolution is the prevailing point of view,” says Andrew Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which studies public opinion.
Even so, Huntsman’s championing of science over faith and ideology offers him an opportunity to raise his profile with what his campaign increasingly acknowledges is his natural constituency: the overlapping circles of the party’s best-educated, least religiously devout, and moderate elements. At the same time, Perry’s staunch defense of unwavering hard-right positions on both questions helps him appeal to unvarnished social and economic conservatives as a “battle-tested conservative warrior,” as his campaign described him in a fundraising solicitation this week.
By solidifying those identities, the argument could benefit both men. But, if it persists, their debate could also highlight the differences between the GOP’s college-educated and less devout managerial wing and its more blue-collar and evangelical populist wing. The two camps converge in support for cutting taxes and spending, but differ on cultural questions, sometimes in their views but more in how much they emphasize them.
“It’s good for the party in that this is a debate we have to have,” said Alex Lundry, a Republican voter-targeting expert who is neutral in the 2012 race (though others in his firm TargetPoint work for Mitt Romney). “There are a couple of core debates that need to be had in the next 10 years—over gay rights, immigration and the role of science. But in order for Republicans to win this election, it has to be a referendum on Barack Obama ... and his stewardship of the economy. To the extent any debates are had in the party that diverge from that goal, that’s bad.”
The dispute began when Perry, in his first week of campaigning, described evolution as “a theory” with “some gaps in it” and said climate change was a theory that “still has not been proven” and was driven in part by a “substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data” to secure research grants.
Huntsman, whose campaign has struggled to generate momentum and attention, responded first with a tweet late last week in which he pointedly wrote, “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.” Then on Sunday, on ABC’s This Week, Huntsman sharpened his criticism by accusing Perry of identifying with an “anti-science” position that could drive away voters in 2012. When “we find ourselves on the wrong side of science,” Huntsman insisted, the party is placed in “a losing position.”
On the specifics of the argument, polls leave no doubt that most Republican voters side with Perry.
In a 2010 Pew survey, only about one in six Republicans said they believed human activity was changing the climate. In a Gallup survey this March that phrased the question differently, 36 percent of Republicans said they believed pollution from human activities had contributed to “increases in the Earth’s temperature over the last century,” while 62 percent of Republicans attributed those changes to natural changes in the environment.
Rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change has become an article of faith for virtually all elements of the GOP coalition. Even in a secular, well-educated state such as New Hampshire, for instance, University of New Hampshire surveys since April 2010 have found that only about one-fourth of Republicans believe human activity is changing the climate. National figures provided to National Journal by Gallup combining surveys from 2011 and 2010 show that college-educated Republicans are even more likely than their non-college counterparts to reject the notion that human activity is changing the climate.
In both the Gallup and Pew surveys, majorities of Democrats attributed climate change to human activity—the conclusion of the vast majority of scientists, including the National Academy of Sciences. Independents fell in between, with one-third in the Pew survey and half in the Gallup poll attributing climate change to human activity.