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Battleground voters are pragmatic on energy

Battleground voters are pragmatic on energy
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Unfazed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE’s non-stop belligerence in last Tuesday’s debate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE embarked the next morning on a whistle stop tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania — two pivotal states Trump won in 2016 that now seem to be slipping from his grasp. 

In addition to their huge importance as presidential battleground states, Pennsylvania and Ohio rank among the top five U.S. states in natural gas production. No wonder Trump keeps trying to convince voters there that the former vice president is a Green New Deal zealot eager to ban drilling for natural gas.

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Only it’s not true, and it’s not working. According to a new ALG Research Poll commissioned by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), Biden is leading Trump in Pennsylvania (50-44) and Ohio (48-46). What’s more, Biden is running significantly ahead of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE’s 2016 performance in the “shale belt” — the gas-producing counties of Southeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania that Trump won handily last time.

These findings suggest that Trump’s claims that on energy as on other issues Biden is a “Trojan Horse” for ardent fossil fuel foes such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHarry Styles hits back at criticism over wearing dress on Vogue cover 'It's not a slogan': Progressives push back on Obama's comments on 'defund the police' movement Obama says Democrats should make sure Ocasio-Cortez has a platform MORE (D-N.Y.) aren’t getting much traction. By a five-point margin (46-41), voters in the two states believe Biden has a “reasonable approach on energy policy.”

In fact, when it comes to energy and climate policy, the PPI poll suggests that it’s Trump, not Biden, who is out of step with mainstream opinion in Pennsylvania and Ohio. While Trump continues to stock his administration with climate deniers, 71 percent of voters in those states say climate change is real and a very serious problem.

These voters also strongly favor America’s clean energy transition to renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydropower. But unlike the “keep it in the ground” left, they firmly oppose a rush to abolish fossil fuels. 

Voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio oppose a ban on natural gas extraction by a whopping 53-point margin (74 percent oppose, 21 percent support). Even among liberal and younger voters, there’s scant appetite for a ban on gas production. Democrats oppose it by 61-31 percent and young voters are opposed by a nearly identical margin. Even voters who consider climate change a “very serious problem” oppose a ban by 28 points.

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Fossil prohibitionists, however, have made some headway in freighting the term “fracking” with negative connotations. Democrats, by a 21-point margin, say they’re against it, even as they strongly oppose a ban on “extraction.” Even so, independents are against a fracking ban, and voters overall oppose one by 20 points (55-35).

Despite Biden’s lead over Trump and moderate image, voters in these rustbelt states split evenly on who they trust to handle energy issues (45 percent Biden, 46 percent Trump.) They know where Trump stands on energy, but aren’t sure about Biden’s views on natural gas, which has become an important source of good production and support jobs in both states. 

About a quarter say Biden is pro-natural gas, a third say he is anti-natural gas, and 43 percent say they aren’t sure. That’s a problem, but it’s also an opportunity: When it’s described to them, a majority of voters, including undecided voters, strongly support Biden’s energy plan. But they need to hear it from the candidate himself. 

“I’m not banning fracking. Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me,” Biden declared in a recent speech in Pittsburgh. That opens the door, but Biden could do a better job of spelling out the underlying logic of his position — that natural gas enables rapid development of renewable energy.

The PPI poll gave voters a choice between a Trump-style plan (fully develop America’s oil and gas resources regardless of the climate impact); a left-leaning plan (ban oil and gas production as quickly as possible while investing massively in renewable energy and clean technology); and a pragmatic plan that uses “natural gas and nuclear power to support the expansion of renewable wind and solar energy.” They overwhelmingly picked the third choice (77-15 percent). 

These voters understand both that the United States will reduce its use of natural gas over time but also that it will not jump to 100 percent renewable energy anytime soon. They responded strongly (42 percent very convincing) to this argument about natural gas: “We shouldn’t use natural gas forever, but it should be a temporary bridge to wind and solar power while technological advances continue to make those cheaper and more reliable.”

This is essentially the Biden plan, which aims at banning carbon-emitting fuels by 2050. Unlike his impatient detractors on the left, Biden knows that a crusade to ban natural gas before cleaner fuels backstopped by new storage technologies are in place is both bad energy and climate policy — and bad politics in America’s heartland.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).