Demanding stricter fuel economy

In September, the Obama administration will make a fateful decision fraught with implications for our economy and for our nation’s dependence on Middle East oil: The president will decide just how many miles per gallon auto company fleets must achieve by 2025.

In surveys we conducted over the last year, Americans express a clear preference for much higher fuel economy standards. Just last month, for Ceres, we explored attitudes in the heart of the industrial Midwest and the headquarters of America’s auto industry — Ohio and Michigan — where we found overwhelming support for at least a 60 miles per gallon standard.

Support for increased fuel efficiency is strong and robust because voters believe it will deliver a variety of valued benefits, including more jobs, less pollution, lower fuel expenditures and reduced dependence on Middle East oil. At the same time, voters reject the view that higher fuel efficiency standards will cost too much or hurt auto companies and cost jobs, believing just the opposite — that stricter fuel efficiency standards will save them money in the long run while spurring innovation by American automakers and creating jobs here.

Voters in the Ceres polls express 4-to-1 support for a specific proposal with two elements: stronger pollution controls on automobiles and a 60 mpg fuel economy standard by 2025 for new cars, pickup trucks, minivans and SUVs. Over three-quarters in both states favor this proposal, while less than 1 in 5 oppose it. 

Support is broad, deep and bipartisan, extending to those in affected industries. Some 9 in 10 Democrats join three-quarters of independents and two-thirds of Republicans in supporting this proposal. 

Many assume that those who derive their living from the auto industry are as skittish about these standards as those who run car companies. Wrong. Those who live in households dependent on the automobile industry respond much like everyone else, with over two-thirds favoring the 60 mpg standard. In Michigan, 74 percent of voters in UAW households favor the strict standards, while just 26 percent oppose them.

Voters believe tougher fuel efficiency standards will be good for their pocketbooks, their country, the environment and the economy as a whole. In the public view, the most likely outcomes of increased fuel efficiency standards include “American car companies will be encouraged to innovate, increasing … their sales [and] protecting … jobs,” followed by “You will use less gasoline and spend less money on gas,” “Air pollution will decrease” and “The U.S. will become less dependent on Middle East oil.” Three-quarters or more in both states judge these consequences likely.

Nearly half the electorate believes “Efforts to increase average miles per gallon for new cars, pickup trucks, minivans and SUVs will create new American jobs.” A quarter or less say it will cost jobs,” with the balance uncertain or foreseeing no effect.

Even after voters heard a strongly worded message from opponents that piled up the hit parade of industry arguments — that higher fuel efficiency standards would hurt American businesses, cost jobs, increase vehicle prices and reduce vehicle safety while constraining consumer choice — voters supported higher fuel efficiency standards by margins approaching or exceeding 40 points, as long as they also heard an argument from supporters.

Supporters’ messages made one of two about equally compelling arguments. One asserted that dependence on foreign oil compromises our national security and that we should not be sending a billion dollars a day to unstable, and often anti-American, oil-producing countries. The other focused on jobs that would be created as auto companies were forced to innovate and, in the long run, generating fuel savings benefiting consumers.

Either of these proves a more than effective counterweight to any message opponents of fuel economy trot out. Americans’ implicit understanding of these advantages accounts for the overwhelming support a 60 mpg fuel economy standard elicits from voters of every stripe. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.