WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidates have taken aim at the Environmental Protection Agency, pledging to cut its federal funding and strip it of the tools to address emissions. But such views may prove a liability with voters on the campaign trail. Recent polls show that a majority of Republicans want to continue funding the EPA, while experts say the electorate largely trusts the American regulatory agency.
"They are catering to a small segment of Republican electorate,” said Republicans for Environmental Protection's David Jenkins when asked why presidential hopefuls would target the agency. When you look at polling on just about any environmental issue, Jenkins said, be it the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act, Americans support conservation by substantial majorities.
Continuing to provide the current level of funding to the EPA is popular among a majority of Republicans, according to the most recent polling, and even among voters who identified as Tea Party supporters: A full 49 percent favored extending federal funding to the regulatory agency.
Yet leading Republican presidential candidates have continued to call for cutting federal funds to the agency, perhaps because of an inherent inconsistency in the polls: Surveys have shown half of Tea Party supporters want to continue funding the EPA, but when polled, they still support candidates who would gut it. Presidential hopefuls have heeded the data on the campaign trail, repeatedly linking environmental regulation to the beleaguered economy.
In a recent CNN debate, Michele Bachmann went so far as to dub the agency the greatest threat to American jobs, and Jon Huntsman has averred new environmental regulations should be shelved until the economy picks up. Rick Perry, for his part, agrees.
In an interview with CBN News earlier this month, Perry asked that the "EPA back down these regulations that are causing businesses to hesitate to spend money,” and as recently as last year he charged that when the EPA declared carbon dioxide a toxic substance, “they put countless businesses, farms, even large churches in their cross hairs."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has opposed the regulation of carbon dioxide, stating on the campaign trail in New Hampshire: “We have made a mistake ... in saying that the EPA should regulate carbon emissions. I don’t think that was the intent of the original legislation, and I don’t think carbon is a pollutant in the sense of harming our bodies.”
Presidential hopeful Herman Cain has vowed to effectively gut the EPA within the first 30 days of being elected, handing environmental regulatory duties over to an "independent commission" headed by oil and gas executives. Ron Paul, in an interview several years back, called the regulatory agency completely unnecessary, while Newt Gingrich has called for the total elimination of the agency.
"I don't see how [these] candidates can think that they can all squeeze through that door and fall all over themselves to appeal to [a minority] of the Republican electorate and that somehow is a smart strategy [for] both the primary as a whole and obviously the general election,” said Jenkins of GOP front-runners. “Most Americans are at a different place.”
When asked if they would “favor legislation to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from spending any money to enforce regulations on greenhouse gases and other environmental issues” only a minority of Republicans -- 45 percent -- responded affirmatively. Among Tea Party candidates the number was just 50 percent. When asked if they favored legislation providing funding to the agency to enforce such regulations, a full 53 percent of Republicans responded affirmatively.
Further, pollsters expect these numbers to rise as the economy turns around.
"This is all in the context of a couple things we've seen the last few years,” Scott Keeter, survey director for Pew Research Center told HuffPost. “First of all, the general political environment for environmental protection is not as favorable as it was a few years ago, and that's largely because of economic conditions. Polling going 20, 30 years [back] shows a fairly strong relationship between [the] health of the economy and people's willingness to prioritize protection of the environment.”
The survey, which was conducted on April 9-10 with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, a time when Congress and the president were working furiously negotiating a Continuing Resolution to keep the government funded through the end of the year, narrowly avoiding a government shutdown. One might expect surveys conducted during that time to skew away from spending, not towards it, yet a full 71 percent of respondents -- both Democrats and Republicans -- favored continuing to fund the EPA.
"Saying we want a clean environment, basically nobody disagrees with that,” Jon McHenry of Ayers of McHenry & Associates told HuffPost. “It's a question of what types of regulations you put in place in order to achieve that goal, and that's where a lot of the criticism from Republican candidates comes from."
But Keeter says, despite the polls numbers, the GOP's attack on the EPA may not be too harmful politically.
There is evidence that within the Republican party, there still [are a] significant number of people, even if it's a minority, who believe in mission of EPA. After all it was created in Republican presidential administration and there's a lot of support, especially among more moderate Republicans, suburban Republicans. So there may be limits to the effectiveness of the EPA bashing, but in the Republican presidential nominating electorate, which is conservative and Tea Party-oriented, it may not be such a downside.
HuffPost has compiled a slideshow highlighting presidential candidates' positions on the EPA -- who would you vote for?