For an hour and a half Wednesday, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talked about jobs, the economy, and more jobs—but they didn't touch on the environment or climate change. A new study suggests maybe they should have: Undecided voters seem to care about global warming as much as Democrats do.
With polls showing a dead heat in the race to woo independent voters and neither candidate doing a great job on climate change (a prominent climatologist told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week that "the silence of Gov. Romney and President Obama on climate change is deafening"), could the issue break the tie?
According to a poll by Yale and George Mason Universities, 80 percent of undecided voters believe that global warming is happening and only 3 percent actively deny it. Two thirds of undecided voters say the federal government should do more to address climate change, and 61 percent say it's an important issue they consider when voting for president.
Both candidates have already acknowledged they believe the earth is getting warmer and that humans are causing it, but neither has campaigned much on the issue. Ed Maibach, the George Mason professor behind the poll, says it's about time they started to.
"We think it's a winner for the president, and we think it could be a winner for Romney too," he says. "The undecided seem to care about this issue."
Maibach says if Romney presents free-market solutions to the problem, he could woo independent voters without alienating his base. Obama's recent silence on the issue is even more puzzling—just 4 percent of Democrats actively deny that global warming is happening, and undecided voters' beliefs on the issue align more closely with the Democrats than the Republicans.
Neither candidate did himself any favors at the first debate. The two sparred over Obama's green jobs and green energy policies, but didn't actively discuss the environment. While Obama said "we've got to look at the energy sources of the future like wind and solar and biofuels," he mainly avoided environmental issues. Romney went even further, blasting tax breaks Obama gave to green energy companies, pledging to double the number of permits and licenses granted to oil drilling companies, and promising to boost coal production.
"By the way, I like coal. I'm going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal," Romney said. "People in the coal industry feel like it's getting crushed by [Obama's] policies."
Compare that to 12 years ago, when Al Gore and George W. Bush spoke at length on global warming. Even the conservative Bush said global warming was an "issue that we need to take very seriously." Gore, who has since become one of the world's most prominent climate change policy cheerleaders, went much further.
"Look, the world's temperature is going up, weather patterns are changing, storms are getting more violent and unpredictable," he said at one of the 2000 debates. "I want to be able to tell my grandson when I'm in my later years that I didn't turn away from the evidence that showed that we were doing some serious harm."
Even four years ago, Obama and Sen. John McCain made global warming an issue at the debates, with McCain saying it's an issue he's been "involved in for many, many years," and saying he opposed Bush's anti-environmental policies. Obama promised that his presidency would "mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change."
This election, both candidates have mainly strayed from that type of message. At last month's Democratic National Convention, Obama reserved four lines for the issue, saying that "climate change is not a hoax" and is "a threat to our children's future."
For his part, Romney has said he's "not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet."