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Trump and the deep divide on environmental quality

Trump and the deep divide on environmental quality

In the latest rollback of Obama-era pollution rules, last week the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to ease restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas companies. The move is expected to save the industry tens of millions of dollars but also increase the risk of premature death, according to the EPA’s own accounting, as more of the potent greenhouse gas accumulates in the atmosphere.

But does the public see it that way? To examine what Americans have to say about how the quality of the environment is changing under Trump, we interviewed a national sample of 1,046 likely voters between Aug. 27 and Sept. 6 and asked, “Right now, do you think the quality of the environment in the country as a whole is getting better or getting worse?” We also asked whether they “strongly” or “somewhat” felt this way. Given the steady loosening of environmental protections during the Trump administration, we expected our sample would overwhelmingly indicate that the quality of the environment is getting worse.

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In fact, this was the case. But what we found nevertheless surprised us.

Overall, 61 percent of our sample indicated that the quality of the environment is getting worse, with one-third (33 percent) saying they “strongly” felt this way—the single most common response. Compare this to almost 40 percent who indicated that the environment is getting better, and 11 percent who “strongly” felt so. These percentages match a March 2018 poll. Based on this overall pattern, it would appear that likely voters are in agreement with scientific authorities that the actions of the Trump administration constitute a serious threat to the environment.

However, this overall pattern masks a deep divide on views about environmental quality. Given Trump’s campaign promise to eliminate federal environmental protections, we were curious whether these environmental attitudes differed among those approving versus disapproving of Trump’s handling of his job as president. Indeed, this mattered. Among those who disapprove of Trump, 89 percent indicated that the environment is getting worse and only 11 percent indicated it is getting better. In stark contrast, we observed the near mirror-image pattern among those approving of Trump: 82 percent indicated that the environment is getting better.

So what do we make of these opposite patterns? Taken at face value, for example, we might conclude that Trump supporters truly believe that the president’s weakening of environmental protections is improving the environment. However, we are somewhat skeptical. 

After all, partisan polarization on the environment is well established, and expressed opinions often reflect policy preferences rooted in partisanship, rather than genuine beliefs. At the same time, it may be hard to fully deny that dismantling environmental protections places the environment in peril. This may help explain why the largest share of Trump supporters (55 percent) only “somewhat” felt that the environment is getting better — which may reflect a hesitancy to fully claim that the environment is improving under Trump.

Yet, our data also suggest that this pattern is not merely a function of partisanship. Although political partisanship reveals a similar divide as Trump approval, with 88 percent of Democrats versus 24 percent of Republicans indicating the environment is getting worse. Trump approval remains a strong predictor even when we statistically account for partisanship.

Nevertheless, it is notable that this divide is nearly as wide among members of the leading parties, as is our observation that 61 percent of independents — those not identifying with either party — indicated the environment is getting worse. In other words, the group that is most likely to cast the pivotal vote is willing to acknowledge what the administration’s policies really mean for the environment, even if Republicans are not. 

When it comes to views about environmental quality, it appears that some likely voters are living in different worlds. Although it would seem hard to deny that the administration’s actions are imperiling the environment, our data show that a sizable portion of likely voters — and strong majorities of Trump supporters and Republicans — are willing to say that the quality of the environment is, in fact, improving. Although it can be difficult to fully accept such responses at face value, these findings nevertheless carry important implications as the midterm elections draw near. After all, if one is willing to declare that the environment is doing just fine — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — then why support candidates and policies that promise to protect it?

Jonathon P. Schuldt (@JonathonSchuldt) is associate professor of communication and a faculty affiliate at the Roper Center at Cornell University. 

Peter K. Enns (@pete_enns) is associate professor of government and executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

Data from Enns and Schuldt 2018 Midterm Election Study was funded by Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality. The nationally representative survey of likely voters was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.