Economy

Nuclear Power Less Popular Than Other Energy Strategies

by Lydia Saad

Conservation-oriented proposals draw widest support

PRINCETON, NJ -- John McCain has ramped up his long-standing call for building more nuclear power plants -- 45 new ones by 2030 -- drawing the sharpest distinction between himself and Barack Obama on energy policy, but also, to some degree, throwing the political dice.

According to a July USA Today/Gallup poll, the impact of a candidate's favoring greater use of nuclear power is mixed. Forty-seven percent of Americans say they are more likely to back a candidate who favors expanding nuclear power, while 41% say they are less likely to back such a candidate. But on a relative basis, the nuclear option is near the bottom of a list of possible solutions to the energy situation.

Despite the fact that a plurality of Americans favor a pro-nuclear-energy candidate, more say they would shun a candidate who wants to build nuclear power plants than say this about any of nine other energy reform positions.

Americans seem more prepared to reward candidates who focus on encouraging energy conservation by consumers, raising fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, raising government spending on alternative fuels, establishing price controls on gasoline, imposing a windfall profits tax on oil companies, and easing restrictions on offshore drilling. At least 57% of Americans say they would be more likely to vote for candidates taking each of these positions.

Two positions that generate a positive reaction from about half of Americans, but that could turn off as much as a third, are:

  • releasing 10% of the nation's U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (something Obama has called for)
  • McCain's proposal for establishing a $300 million government reward for inventing a fully electric car with a long-lasting battery

The only issue besides nuclear power to draw opposition from about 4 in 10 Americans is suspending the federal gasoline tax for several months -- the so-called gas-tax holiday that McCain has proposed and Obama has opposed. Thirty-nine percent of Americans say they would be less likely to support a candidate who wants to suspend the gas tax -- perhaps because it isn't a long-term solution.

Pointing the Finger at Consumers

A separate question in the new poll tested the possible political backlash for Obama's comments that could be perceived as blaming American consumers for the nation's energy woes by emphasizing the need to change their usage habits. The results suggest there is, in fact, little backlash.

Only 17% of Americans say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who said the energy situation would not be solved until Americans "changed their habits to use less energy" -- fewer than say they are more likely to vote for such a candidate (28%). Most Americans -- 54% -- are indifferent to the remark, saying it would make no difference to their vote.

Republicans and Democrats have largely similar reactions to most of the policy issues tested. But the two standing at the center of McCain's energy plan -- offshore drilling and expanded nuclear power -- generate larger partisan differences.

Republicans are heavily skewed toward saying they are more likely to vote for a candidate who wants to ease restrictions on offshore domestic drilling while Democrats are about evenly divided in their reactions. Importantly, political independents fall squarely on the pro-drilling side of the question, perhaps explaining why Obama recently indicated some new willingness to incorporate this into his energy plan.

Compared with their support for offshore drilling, all three political groups are less likely to say they would respond positively to a candidate who supports building more nuclear power plants, but this still wins the support of a majority of Republicans (58%). Independents are slightly more in favor of pro-nuclear candidates than opposed (48% vs. 40%), while the slight majority of Democrats (51%) are opposed.

Bottom Line

Four-dollar-a-gallon gas prices have put the nation's energy woes at the center of the 2008 presidential campaign, renewing discussion of options like oil drilling and nuclear power production that have long been pushed aside in Washington.

Whichever candidate is seen as the more serious in addressing the problem could ultimately benefit. That may be just what McCain is banking on. However, when it comes to specifics, Obama's approach of focusing on energy conservation and the development of fossil-fuel alternatives seems highly safe. Large majorities of Americans have a positive reaction to the various proposals that fall within this realm.

Oil drilling is also a winning issue, and one that could work in McCain's favor. However, his close association with a bold proposal to expand nuclear power usage could be somewhat more risky. While close to half of Americans say they would be more likely to support a candidate who proposes this, 4 in 10 political independents -- a group McCain can't afford to scare off -- downgrade their chances of voting for such a candidate.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 25-27, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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